May 1, 2010
She’d whispered into my ear last night, “O Ed, you make such reasonable love.”
I was sitting at one of those dainty outdoor tables they have at cafés to try to make you feel like the place that’s serving you lunch is really on a village square in southern France, and that it’s only by some profound quantum improbability that it appears to find itself by the ash-black tarmac of metropolis x.
“Such very reasonable love…” Every time I thought that line I unslept five minutes of the previous night. So over the course of that morning I’d become a life-long insomniac, and I was beginning to imagine that my mouth tasted disturbingly of bitter almonds.
No one commented on the way I spent half an hour eating a sandwich with a knife and fork.
I’d reverted to being four years old. When I was four I always used to sort my food out into pure and distinct catagories, and then eat it accorrding to each section’s position on the colour-spectrum. (I ate in the order of black, then blue to red, and finally white). This took a really long time, especially if, heaven forbid, anything was served in a sauce. So understandably my mother got kind of upset about my little hobby. I don’t remember how many years I’d been eating reasonably since then, but as no one was paying the slightest bit of attention at that moment, I tried to catch a waitress’ eye to order the exact same sandwich again.
I sat still as I waited, watching the empty chair an impractically small distance across the table from me. I was retroactively ruining my honeymoon.
Another lunch arrived and took its place in front of me. I picked up my knife and fork, breathed in deeply and let out a long sigh as I regarded my second project.
I glanced upwards and for a moment my repetitive reverie was broken by the sight of the most impeccably dressed hobo I had ever seen.
Somehow he must have gotten several dollars from several people, because he was sipping an intricately designed, Italian-named latté from one of the café’s monogrammed cup and saucers. He was dressed in a black woollen suit, with a burgundy shirt of what appeared to be satin, and an extravaggantly wide navy tie that would have been considered tasteful about five years earlier.
He smelled pleasantly, if extremely strongly, of white roses, and smiled manically, though not so manically that he didn’t seem almost sane, as he lowered his drink and extended a hand to me, introducing himself, “Harvey Alderwald.”
This was one of those times that I normally panic and run away, or call the police, or give the guy ten dollars and point to some distant object in the sky while I slip away. I only later realise that had I thought faster I could have had the choice of doing that or taking advantage of nature’s free-to-air sitcom for however long I wanted.
But this time I stayed in my seat, too tired from years of spending all night muttering to myself about “reasonable love” to move at the speed of instinct.
I stared at him open-mouthed for a moment, sluggishly trying to decide how much I was enjoying going back through time and ruining every day of my life.
“Ed Wiggins,” I replied, arching a hand over project lunch.
His hands were both pale and calloused.
“I used to be like you when I was younger,” he said, shaking my hand. We looked exactly the same age. “You’re a student, yeah?”
“Everyone’s a student these days,” I replied. “Life-long learning and all that.”
“Not me,” chirped the hobo, “I finished school and never went back.”
“You seem very pleased with yourself,” I observed, looking for and not finding the drink I was sure I had ordered.
“Yeah, it’s pretty good,” he pronounced with a philosophical air on top of his characteristic air. “Actually,” he leant in as though he was about to tell me about the cocaine dealer in the back of the restaurant around the corner, “I didn’t even do very much stud-ee-ingg by the last couple of years of my bachelor’s degree.”
I decided he was expecting me to ask a question, “so what were you doing?”
I was working nightshifts at a Denny’s and using my limited funds to cultivate my enduring love of Scotch that I can’t afford.
“At first I didn’t do anything,” he said, looking back into the mists of time about two feet behind my left ear. “I mean, there’s really nothing to say about it, but at the time it changed my life. Especially after I started failing comparative derivatives analysis and Hispanic studies, when I had nothing to look forward to in life because I’d thrown thirteen years of work off of a proverbial bridge, I felt, I don’t know, I guess you would say I felt at peace.”
Actually, I would never say such a thing, but go on…
“Then I read this book by Ghandi,” he said looking back into my eyes, “it was his autobiography, Experiments in Truth, or something. Well, actually, I didn’t read it. I mean, I read probably well over half of it, and it was seriously long so I never have finished it, but it inspired me, you know.”
He’s a hippy. I gambled and I got a hippy. Just give him a few bucks to sponsor him publicly urinating for Tibet or something…
“So that’s when I took up watching porn.”
“Porn?” If I could find my drink or if I was still eating my food I would have choked a little just then.
How can anyone smile that widely?
“As in pornography?”
“As in the kind you get from the internet?”
“Precisely,” he was very excited by ‘the internet,’ “the very same.”
“Not making it?”
“Yeah, well,” I explained, trying to let him down gently, “we all did that. Porn is a pretty big thing, most people, well, I mean, I guess, I still do that, and so do a lot of people. It’s pretty normal.”
“What?” he asked, incredulous, “porn? With the naked people?”
“In those 3-D hologrammatic projection-recorders?”
Wow, okay! This guy was seriously, definitely older than me. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen hologrammatic porn. All-sensory, full-immersion virtual-reality replaced that, it must have been eight years ago. The idea of pornography that you could pass your hand through and make out the outline of your living room in if you looked at it closely enough was now more funny than anything. I thought to myself, “I probably couldn’t even get off to that anymore.”
“Well, yeah,” I said, “in the old days it would have been like that. We use VR porn these days though, mostly.”
“Oh really,” he exclaimed like some geriatric hipster being shown what an IPhone 3.0 can do for the first time, “well, either way, that’s not what I mean at all when I say I started watching porn.”
“No,” he launched into explaining, “like I told you, I wasn’t doing anything after I stopped studying. And that includes working. I didn’t exactly have as much on my paypal account as I did on my mind, if you follow.
“Now as I’m sure a man of the world,” he paused and puzzled for a moment, “or, well, that world. Anyway, as I’m sure you’re aware, internet-porn is designed to be cleverly not as free as it first appears. Momentary samples, and galleries of not quite enough to get you off after the first couple of weeks of your habit are all, of course, in generous supply. But if there’s one thing that is ever properly encrypted on the internet, it’s the pornographic content needed to keep the serial junky at his computer from five to nine, being microcharged for the only thing tying him to his wordly existence.”
No dollar for you.
“As you can imagine,” he went on, “this presented me with something of a problem. No job, no prospects, no hope of actual sex. I was an addict before I first flashed on the stuff. But I was also broke.”
“So you want me to give you some jerking-off money?” I said, reaching for my wallet at once out of fear and an appreciation for a masterly, if deeply misguided, performance.
He nearly laughed himself off of his dainty French chair.
“No, no,” he managed to get out between heavy breaths, “no, no, I’ve never paid for pornography in my life!”
“You’ve heard of Project Gutenberg?” he asked.
“Well, I dated a clit major- I mean a lit major!- once when I was an undergrad, if that’s what you mean,” I replied. “She was the kind that didn’t, you know, wash. So, yeah, I know Gutenberg.”
“And do you remember Net 2.0?”
“You remember Net 2.0!”
“No,” he said, sounding almost offended, “how old do I look?”
Not as old as you smell, but still…
“Okay, well, yeah,” I said quickly, “I’ve heard of it.”
“Very good,” he grinned as he said that, like a teaching assistant leading into a very clever trick question, “but have you heard of Project Nutenberg 2.0?”
Do I want to?
He was visibly delighted at how his well-rehearsed bit was going, “In about 2015 a group of nostalgic, aging hipsters of the Gen Y variety were wasting away in some unloved graduate IT department in an out-of-the-way West Coast university. Depressed by the passing of the days when they could buy a girl a drink at a bar without wondering how many times it was medically safe to get mace in your eyes, they decided to glorify the days when they, if not mattered, at least had the potential to matter. So they went through and systematically backed up vast fields of abandoned livejournals, XKCD spin-offs and bad reviews of worse movies.
“Net 2.0 was filled with all kinds of crap. It was also full of porn.”
I always double over when I laugh, so I was in no danger of kissing the global ashtray when he said that. Asphyxiation and being recommended for an asylum by the rest of the clientele were still issues though.
“The porn off Net 2.0?” I managed to wheeze out.
“You’ve been getting off to the porn off Net 2.0?”
“Think about it,” he implored me, as though he lived in a world where all genius was inverse to ours. “It’s the product of a whole, overpopulated, angsty generation, demographically young and nubile compared to our own. And back then porn was still mostly a male-consumer industry. It’s tens of millions, maybe more, of the finest sluts mankind has ever produced, and the world has abandoned them all to me!”
“You mean that two-dimensional sight and sound only stuff?” I was incredulous.
“A lot of it was sight only.”
“You mean stills!”
“I’ll admit,” he said, “it was difficult at first. Well, not even difficult, just weird. And it wasn’t just the format. A lot of these people are old now, really old. A lot of them are dead, or my grandmother’s age. She’s in one of those nursing home über-complexes. I mean, you don’t want to be thinking about that while you’re beating off.”
I put my arms out and held the table to steady myself: wow!
“But now…” he said, “It helped that I was pretty innocent before. I’d seen porn, but never got heavily into it. I guess these days I’m like one of those historical recreationists who can convince themselves they really are blacksmiths or officers travelling with the English army to Agincourt. Only with antiquated pornography.”
I pictured an episode of Time Team with Everett Carmichael reading an Attenborough as Harvey slowly unzipped his pants in front of his computer, “In the early twenty-first century early predecessors of the modern sexotainment industry were still adjusting to the internet age. They were driving important developments in the new technology, such as secure-browsing and unbreakable pay-per-view encryption.”
“And the fetishes!” he waxed uncomfortably loudly, “you would not believe the shit they did before the 2023 industry-regulation bills. It’s like the worst parts of Tijuana everywhere!”
“You can still get fetish-porn today,” I explained, feeling strangely compelled to defend my generation’s perversions against a man who might even be younger than me, “I mean, you have to pay for it, but there are loopholes in all the laws. If you build a VR-avatar without using a real-world model you’re technically making a painting and not porn. There’s an exemption for that.”
“That’s fringe stuff,” he contradicted, waving his hand dismissively. “In those days there was something about the sheer ubiquity of the fetish-porn that changed the whole atmosphere. I mean, I don’t even have any particularly out-of-the-way fetishes. But the way every site in those days would have sections devoted to nymphonia and BDSM made the normal stuff feel more authentic, more alive!”
Okay, so he’s still a hippy. He was just more perverted than I was used to.
“So that stuff really doesn’t grow stale for you,” I said, now in open admiration.
“Well,” he began, slumping into his chair in a way that made me notice that the lunch hour had ended and we were almost the only customers left. “Actually, for a long time it didn’t. For about fifteen years to be a little more precise. About as long as it took for Net 2.0 to evolve into something more like what it’s become today.”
“So,” I stammered, worry settling, “what did you do?”
“There was this one actress,” his eyes misted over into the distance as he spoke, “Eleanor Dreamz she was called. She was an animal. The things she did, man! But she looked like a choir-girl. She was always dressed like she was going to church for Easter at the start of her videos.”
“And now she’s one of those geriatric bodies hooked up to the machines in the über-complexes,” I surmised, seeing the whole sick story stretching out in front of me, rolling off the tongue of the sick, sad man across this small, chic table made for twenty-year-olds who believe in love and Europe. I felt like the shocked and confused secretary who looked up at Harvey coming in to make a visit to those things that normal people don’t even want to think about. A little bit of vomit rose up into both our mouths as the smell of the white roses he was bringing hit us. That secretary had probably heard, like me, of those, if not criminal, then something worse souls who cave in to the most profound desperation and go to the über-complexes. They take rusting elevators and wander down the windowless corridors looking for their ‘grandmothers’ or ‘aunts’ or whatever bullshit they make up. No one has relatives they’d visit in those places. Otherwise they wouldn’t be in those places. But they let them in anyway, not bothering to check their claims, out of pity. Then those two ruined bodies go at it, copulating in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
“Actually, she’s dead.”
I went completely pale.
“She died really young,” he explained, O God why is he explaining this? “She lived in Canada, in New Brunswick, ate at a KFC once and couldn’t take the food poisoning. She was buried up there, so I figured with the cold climate and the quick, natural death, she would still be pretty whole.
“So I drove up there. The town where she lived was pretty much abandoned. Talk about urban-consolidation. I’d had all these plans about how I was going to dig her up by the light of the full moon, and all these excuses for being there I can’t even remember now. But I didn’t have to do any of that. There was no one around for miles. I saw a fishing-trawler once on the very horizon and that was it. So I dug her up in broad-daylight squatting in an abandoned suburban house with good insulation. It took two and half days work and I stayed there a week in all.”
I was completely silent. I felt my jaw beginning to drop, but I immediately closed it shut. The air felt unclean.
“Well,” Harvey perked up, “it’s been nice talking to you. I hope I see you again some day.”
As he left I noticed he’d eaten my meal.
That night I went home and fucked like a systems analyst. While the rest of the world slept, I wept muffled sobs into my pillow.