CHILDREN OF THE NEW WORLD

Inspired by internet scams and porn culture, Alexander Weinstein’s story explores the dark corners of the digital world. Illustration by Nicole Rifkin.

Sometimes, when evening comes and the light hits our home in a way that reminds us of that other life, we’ll talk about them. What their faces looked like, the feeling of their weight in our arms, the way our youngest would crawl onto my back. I’ll see Mary sitting alone in our living room, the sun gone, just the reds of dusk outlining the trees, and I know she’s remembering them. I’ll walk over, put my arms around her, or kneel by her and place my head in her lap, and we’ll stay like that, holding one another’s pain, wondering whether we are truly monsters.

They weren’t real, we say, looking for confirmation. Right?

Right.

Then we get up, start dinner, and move on with our childless lives.

*

For those of us who became parents in those first years, we remember the awe and beauty of the New World. To lie down in the darkness of the compartment, adjust the pillow beneath our heads, and log on was tantalising. The chamber’s darkness gave way to the light of the other world, the white walls of our online home appearing before us, filling our teeth with electric joy. We recall the first steps we took in our new house. To reach out and touch the world was to be illuminated, and we walked outside to see the homes lined up along our street, shining and new, other users emerging from doorways, waving as they crossed their lawns to make introductions. Isn’t this incredible? Where are you using from? Las Cruces, Copenhagen, Austin. We were like babies. Like Adam and Eve, some said. We reached out toward one another to see how skin felt; we let our neighbours’ hands run across our arms. In this world, we seemed to understand, we were free to experience a physical connection that we’d always longed for in the real world but had never been able to achieve. Who can blame us for being reckless?

Perhaps such thoughts seem childish now, in light of all that happened; yet it’s often those first weeks of usage, when the world was still new, that Mary and I speak of most when we remind ourselves that life was good. It was just a beautiful illusion, we tell one another, a fantastic electronic diversion. Right? Right, we say.

*

Mary’s pregnancy took us both by surprise. She had gone through menopause a decade earlier and we’d resigned ourselves to living childless lives. We’d waited too long, had debated the pros and cons too many times, had placed our jobs first, and then it was too late. It was only when Mary’s belly began to swell that we accessed the FAQ tab. It was all there, no great mystery: pregnancy worked the same as in the real world, fully explained in the tutorial. We had planned to watch the walk-thru at some point, had gotten as far as the instruction to roll our thoughts to the left to select our tattoos and piercings, up and down for musculature and age, but then we began playing with landscapes and playlists, and before we knew it, we had the basics of navigation down. This is how you upload music to the home speakers; this is how you project your photos onto the living room wall; this is how you place one hand on your wife’s hips; this is how she puts her hand behind your neck; this is how you kiss. And then she was pregnant.

The FAQs informed us we could remove an unwanted pregnancy as easily as dragging a file to the recycle bin, but we were curious. Here would be another being formed from the combination of our genome preferences. The birth promised to be as quick and painless as a download. So we held each other, scrolled through online baby names, and agreed to bring new life into this world.

In the New World, Mary and I proved to be a completely different couple. Our bodies became freed from habit, independent of hormonal changes. We grew hungry for the electric hum of one another. Mary soon became pregnant again and our lives were illuminated in a way we’d thought impossible in the physical world. Online, with our new family, we had found joy.

*

June had just turned three and Oscar was two when Mary and I began to explore the borders of the New World. By then, almost everyone had heard of the Dark City. It was there on the horizon, out over the tree line of our neighbourhood, a brown glow in the distance. It was common knowledge you could travel to the city to spend a few hours, days even, among its pleasure domes and massage parlours. When I’d log off and go to work, the other men at the office made jokes about their weekends, a delicious guilt within their laughter. Smoothest bodies you’ll ever feel, they confided. It was said there were parlours where air currents tickled the body to the edge of ecstasy. There were morphing temples where skin became euphoric mounds of quivering jelly. We were intrigued. I’d go if you went, we agreed. So, one night late in January, after the children had fallen asleep, we left them with an online babysitter and headed for the Dark City.

I’d once witnessed Amsterdam’s Red Light district with its windows of naked bodies and its rotten maroon lights. I can still smell its cobblestones, thick with dirt, and see the doorways, dark with hungry faces. This was what I’d imagined the Dark City would resemble, and I’d expected to be repulsed when we approached its gates, to turn back with shame and relief, to write the place off as a tasteless distraction. But though the city oozed a seedy brown light, up close the streets were lit by warm yellow lamps humming with electricity. The gates of its many entrances stood open, so welcoming that turning away was impossible. We saw men and women emerging from its depths, setting off from the gates to return home. There was no danger in exploring a block or two, we reasoned.

So we entered the first district of the city, filled with its soft-core delights, its toy shops and kissing booths. The stores reflected the amber glow of lamps, which brightened the faces of other tourists who walked the streets: couples with their arms around one another, college kids sitting on curbs kissing, single men walking with their hands in their pockets. A Korean man standing by a foot massage parlour called out to us, ‘Beautiful Asian girls. Twenty credits for fifteen minutes.’ Across the street, a gorgeous man called my wife sweetie and invited us inside to be tickled. And rising above the lights and the busy streets, one could hear the collective moans from deep within the web of avenues, pulling us forward toward the core.

The Air Current Hotels were four blocks in. White three-story buildings with darkened windows and velvet ropes leading to their doors. At the check-in desk, a teenage receptionist in a string-top charged my account forty credits for the session.

‘It’s our first time.’

‘You’ll love it!’ she said. ‘You’ve never experienced air like this!’ She smiled and directed us toward the elevators. ‘Second floor, room number 17.’

‘What do we do there?’

‘Just close the door and stand in the middle of the room. We’ll take it from there.’

We rode the elevator to the second floor and found the room entirely empty, the lights dimmed. I shut the door behind us and we stepped into the middle of the room. A light draft played along the floor, working its way up my legs and finding the softness behind my knees. Another breeze caressed my neck, then slid down my collar. Our feet were lifted from the ground and we floated horizontally, air currents tickling our skin with alternating nips of cold and warmth. Wind rubbed against my lips, playing against my tongue; a strong gust pushed against my chest, holding me down. I reached out to hold on to Mary, but there was nothing except air. Mary arched her back, pushing down into the gusts that caressed her again and again, until her body was vibrating, piqued by wind, and we blossomed together, our bodies becoming one with the network of electrons buzzing around us.

In this way, Mary and I became one of the many giddy couples walking with their arms around one another on the streets of the Dark City. We graduated from the Air Current Hotels to the Thousand-Finger Parlours, and later on to the second ring of the city, with its Morphing Temples. There was a beautiful playfulness to it all, and we rekindled our passion — one which was restricted to our online lives. For when we returned to our chambers at home and changed out of our clothes, we did so with cybernetic exhaustion, barely noticing our naked bodies, which brushed against one another in the bathroom. And when we kissed goodnight, we didn’t linger. This, however, seemed a small price to pay for our online pleasures, and if we felt disconnected from one another in the real world, we attempted to pay this little heed, focusing instead on that moment, every night, when our children were asleep and we’d set off to seek our individual pleasures together.

*

Mary found the man in our bathroom shortly after we’d visited the Bondage Cathedral. I heard her scream from the other side of the house. He stood there, his body flickering a low-resolution, pale-faced man whose body pixelated in places. His erection, however, glowed in high resolution, and when he saw Mary he said, ‘I want to please you in sixty-nine ways,’ before she slammed the door shut and yelled for help. When I opened the door, the man was stroking himself, looking down at his enormous penis. ‘I can help you grow three inches naturally,’ he told me.

The FAQs didn’t cover this. It was only after searching through other users’ blog entries that we figured out how to delete him from our home. But during our next session, when the doorbell rang, we opened the front door and encountered a man from Ghana who told us he was a distant relative. He’d brought our children presents, he said. He needed our credit number to upload the toys for the kids. We locked the door but we could see the man outside, pacing first on our porch, and then climbing into our bushes to knock on our windows. We deleted him, but when night came, our lamps no longer lit our home with soft warmth but contained a shadowy light, and our house was filled with the feeling of being watched by countless eyes, our every action scanned for information.

Mary took the children into our bedroom and I logged off to call online support. The man on the other end of the line spoke broken English, the line buzzing from an overseas connection. He tried a few options with me, and finally said, ‘Sir, your account is corrupted. You will have to reset all files to the initial settings.’

‘What’s that mean?’

‘You must delete all data from your account—your preferences, photos, and music. You will need to recreate your bodies again. I see you have children.’

‘Yes.’

‘You will need to delete them.’

‘What?’

‘The virus has spread to them. You’ll have to delete them and begin again. I’m sorry, sir.’

‘I’m not deleting my children!’

‘Yes, sir, I understand. It is your choice. But the system has a fatal error; it will only get worse. Your account is filled with viruses. You won’t want your children in that house soon.’

‘Put your supervisor on.’

‘Yes, sir,’ the man said. Then I was put on hold for ten minutes of light jazz until a supervisor, and later her supervisor, told me the same information: that we should have installed an anti-virus protection plan. Without it, there was little left to do but return our system to factory settings.

‘What if we move to a new house?’

‘I’m afraid all of your family is corrupted,’ the supervisor told me. ‘You’ll just end up bringing the virus with you. It’s an easy process to reboot. Simply hold down the power button on your console for twenty seconds and—‘

These are my children!’ I yelled.

‘If it’s any consolation, they won’t feel a thing. They’re just data.’

I hung up the phone and told Mary the news. There was no way, we agreed, that we would reboot. We’d have to be vigilant, delete each and every file when they appeared. The kids could sleep in our room. We’d take shifts keeping watch over them. I called in sick to work and Mary used her vacation days, but within a week nowhere was safe. A bronze-skinned man with spiky hair appeared in our bedroom, telling Mary there were guys like him waiting to connect with her. A woman who looked like my mother transmogrified in the living room, saying she’d been robbed and needed our help to pay for groceries. We had to restrain our children from running to her when she called out their names. Toys began appearing around the house; to touch a single one was to transmit all our information across an insecure interface. We hid the children beneath blankets, telling them this was all a game we were playing. And then, one evening, we found ourselves surrounded, every room of the house filled with cartoon characters hawking downloadable games and attractive women selling vibrators and wrinkle cream.

‘We don’t have a choice,’ I finally said to Mary. ‘You can stay with them and hold them. I’ll log out and do it.’

‘Do what, Daddy?’ June asked, peeking out from the hut we’d built in the corner of our bedroom. We were silent for a moment.

‘Nothing,’ I said quietly. ‘Come and give me a hug. You, too, Oscar,’ I called, and our children emerged from the hut, climbing onto my lap to put their arms around me.

I often tell myself that I held them for as long as I could. It was worse for Mary; she felt their bodies disappear from beneath her embrace.

*

Among my favourite memories: snow. Its enhanced crystalline structure; its pristine whiteness; its silence. Oscar, June, and I on a sled, zooming down a snowy hill which spools endlessly ahead of us, June pointing at the corn-piped snowman bowing to us and tipping his top hat as we speed by. And when we walk back to the house, our sled dragging behind us, the quiet end of the day, dusk falling along the horizon, the snow lilac with evening.

Mary’s favourite memory: a morning in spring, the soft light breaking through our windows and lighting up the wooden floors. I’m playing with June, rolling a small Matchbox car back and forth, and Oscar is sleeping in her arms, our family together and quiet.

Things I regret: raising my voice. The look of surprise on their faces moments before the hurt set in. And for what? For taking too long to put on their shoes; for not wanting to sleep when I was ready to log off; for asking me to read another chapter; for being children. There’s no way you can give everything to your children, no way you can spend every minute with them or be there for each hour of their lives. But give me a second chance, and I’d never log off. I’d read them stories until they were deep asleep, hold them tightly through the darkness, and tell them I loved them once again. The feeling of parenthood never leaves you. Not when I go to work now. Not when Mary and I go to dinner or sit alone at the movie theatre.

*

Every Sunday, Mary and I go to the support group they hold over in Corvallis at the community centre. It’s facilitated by Bill Thompson, a large, heavyset man with a salt-and-pepper beard who reminds us of a grizzly bear. He’s a warm-hearted guy, gruff in a comforting way, who smokes Marlboro Reds outside during breaks. Every meeting he brings a basket of assorted teas and coffee for us, arranges our chairs in a circle, and offers a hug more readily than a handshake. One of his common pieces of wisdom is, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you they weren’t real.’ He puts his fingers over his heart and taps softly. ‘They were real here.’ Of everyone who attends, he’s undoubtedly lost the most. He had a family of five and a wife he’d met online who turned out to be a scammer. She’d taken it all from him: drained his savings, stolen his identity, and infected the children. Not that we should compare losses, he tells us. There’s no hierarchy to pain. ‘Our work isn’t to figure out who hurts the most,’ he says. ‘Our work is to heal.’

We take turns. New members tell their stories first. They go through the stages many of us have gone through. They show us their photos — if they’re lucky enough to have printed them — and talk about the smell of their children, the colours of the clothing they were wearing on the last day before they rebooted. They cry, and Bill holds the space for them, gives them a hug when it seems like they’ll accept one, and teaches us how to grieve. ‘We all have to reboot this,’ he says, and motions to the room with his open palms. ‘This world, with all its pain and loss. This is where we learn to love again.’

Bill’s been a saviour to Mary and me. For a long time, there was no one to share our pain with. We have friends and they’re good-hearted, well-meaning people, but they never had kids on the other side. They comfort us for a while, a couple of weeks or a month, and send sympathy cards and flowers, but in the end they all offer the same advice: it’s time to move on. They were just programs. You can create new children. And we nod grimly, knowing full well we’ll never return.

Bill’s advice has helped us get to a place where we can say what happened wasn’t our fault. That we’re not monsters, that our children didn’t die because of us. We were lonely. We were needful. We wanted to feel pleasure again, to be caressed and loved. Our longings were those of humans, not monsters. No, the real monsters in this world are the hackers and scammers, faceless men and women who destroy lives for the joy of testing a virus, and who sacrificed our children to make a buck.

When the meetings are over, Bill invites us to be physical like we were in the other world. ‘Human contact is all there really is,’ he says. And so we put our arms around one another, timidly at first, and eventually with all the warmth of our bodies. We hold the others who come, the parents and widowers, the aunts, uncles, and grandparents. We pull strangers into our embrace and hold them tightly against us. There’s nothing electronic about the gesture, no hum to the body, only the warmth of their breathing and the beating of their hearts.


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