“I want to know if my virtual girlfriend is really a man in real life,” Begonia Bittersweet told us.
It was the fifth meeting of the Avatar Dining Club and this time it was the turn of Rainy September to bring a virtual guest to L’Albero Verde, the Italian restaurant the group’s founder, Edward, had selected as our monthly gathering place. I noticed this time that I was recognised by the waiter, who took my coat on my arrival with a friendly smile rather than leaving me to hang it up myself, and who waved me through to our table without asking me if I had a reservation. Clearly, we were ‘regulars’ now, and being encouraged to regard ourselves as such. I approved, and I made a mental note to catch his name so I could greet him by it next time.
Rainy, I had decided, was the most judgemental member of the club. Whenever I thought of her, I imagined her disapproving of something. It intrigued me that she still attended these get-togethers. Unlike everyone else, she had no real ‘occupation’ in the metaverse. Mary-Anne Middlemarch, who sat to my right at the table for seven, was a fashion blogger; Raw Concrete, who sat to my left, was a builder. Opposite me, Jennifer Bit – a man in real life (though the rule was we went by our avatar identities for these meetings) – was a photographer, and to her right sat Indigo Williams who both owned a club and designed skins. That left Edward, who had introduced himself five months previously as a role-player. Rainy, however, had no real purpose in the virtual world, no passions, no loyalties. She explored. She shopped. She went out clubbing. That said, between the previous meeting and this one, she had got metaverse married to someone she’d met between the previous meeting and the one before that. When it was decided in the pre-meeting email that she would be bringing the virtual guest this time, I was certain it would be her new ‘hubby’ to show off to us all. But I was wrong. Whilst he was present in no small measure in the talk as she set up her laptop at the end of the table, it turned out that video interaction was not a feature of their relationship. Yet. “He says he needs more time,” she reported, with more than a hint of impatience and scorn in her voice, and I wondered absently if, for the sixth meeting of the club, we might find ourselves discussing metaverse divorce.
So we got Begonia. Rainy dialled up her distant virtual acquaintance on the laptop at the end of the table, and it was an outdoors backdrop we saw behind the blonde, middle-aged Australian wearing a bikini and a headset who appeared on the screen. “Hello!” she greeted us, raising a glass of something orange. “Oh my God, Bego,” shouted Rainy in an unnecessarily loud Skype voice, “is that a freaking beach you’re sitting on?”
“Waves and wi-fi, baby!” Begonia replied. “It’s a winning combination!”
Edward said to her grandly, his arms opened wide, “Greetings, Begonia, you are most welcome at our table.”
“Bego, this is Edward,” Rainy told her friend. “He’s the boss of this group I told you about.”
“Founder, my dear,” Edward corrected.
“Hello Edward!” Begonia replied in a slightly sing-song voice. We got the rest of the introductions over with and then got down to the business of ordering food. Our guest had brought a bacon sandwich with her to the beach and she started munching on it whilst we waited for our food to arrive. “I’m really sorry,” she told us, “but this is my breakfast and I’m absolutely starving.” Several times I caught Raw staring at the screen, but I couldn’t be certain whether it was at Begonia in her bikini he was looking at or her sandwich. When he called the waiter back over and ordered an extra topping of ‘bacon bits’ on his pizza, however, I realised I had my answer. I caught the waiter’s name: it was Enrico.
The conversation at first was the usual sort of thing, all about Begonia’s metaverse life. Like Rainy, it turned out, she had no virtual vocation to speak of. She described herself as a ‘professional shopper’ and laughed hard at this. A little too hard. She rented land in a private region and had a post-modern house there, a glass and rendered concrete build of four stories, right on the edge of the sea. “What can I tell you?” she declared, waving her arm in a broad sweep across the vista of sand and breaking waves behind her. “I’m a beach bum born and bred!” I wasn’t certain that beach bums commonly lived in four-storey houses; then again I wasn’t up-to-date on the latest definitions of the term.
And then, once our orders had arrived, she told us her problem. There was an awkward silence around the table whilst everyone tried hard not to look at Jennifer. “I know you guys solve virtual world problems,” Begonia continued, oblivious to our discomfort. “Rainy’s told me all about the mysteries you’ve cracked. I figure this one must be easy for you.”
“Easy?!” Raw retorted. “You must be joking – it’s impossible!” I could tell what his strategy was: dismiss the idea instantly and we wouldn’t have to go there. I added my support to his plan by nodding vigorously.
“That all depends on how skilfull you are,” said Jennifer, a twinkle in her eye, no doubt at our expense. She waved at the laptop. “I’m a woman in the metaverse.”
“Yes I heard,” said Begonia. “I suppose an expert is precisely what I need.”
“I did mention you,” Rainy commented to Jennifer. “I didn’t tell her your whole metaverse name, though.”
“Do you tell anyone that you’re a man in real life?” Begonia asked.
“Originally no-one,” Jennifer replied, “but recently I’ve confided in a couple of close friends.”
“And how do you manage the guilt?”
“Guilt?” Jennifer repeated. “What guilt?”
“About lying to people.”
“We all lie to people in some way,” Jennifer said.
Begonia looked like she was about to say something in reply to that and, meanwhile, the look on Rainy’s face suggested she’d just that moment tuned in to the notion that this might not have been the wisest of issues to bring before this particular group. She said quickly, “Why don’t you tell them about your suspicions, Bego?”
Begonia paused for a moment and then nodded. “Well it began as nothing more than a feeling, really. I started wondering about it maybe a month or so ago.” Whilst she talked, I glanced briefly in Edward’s direction. The sixty-something man looked unhappy. “Some of the things she was coming out with… well they just didn’t sound female to me.” She sighed. “So anyway, I asked her if she’d like to voice with me and she refused, so that really set my alarms bells ringing.”
“Why?” asked Jennifer. “Plenty of people don’t like voicing.”
“For five minutes? It wasn’t like I was insisting on it there and then. If she’d told me she’d do it in a week’s time or even in a month then that would have been one thing, but to flat-out refuse to ever voice with me? Now that’s just weird.”
“Um,” said Mary-Anne, “I’ve never voiced. It’s just not my thing.” Nervously, she pushed a piece of broccoli around her plate with her fork. Mary-Anne was the quietest member of our group. “I really wouldn’t know what to say. I’d be too self-conscious.”
“Have you ever partnered inworld, Mary-Anne?” Begonia asked her.
“Twice,” she replied.
“And you never got asked to voice verify?”
“Both times,” she said. “And both times I refused. The first guy ended the relationship straight away, more-or-less. The second guy accepted it. I’m still with him now, in fact.”
Begonia sighed again. “This is what I was afraid of. I just don’t get it. What’s the big deal with a few minutes of voice just to prove you are who you say you are?”
“If that was the rule,” Mary-Anne said, “then I wouldn’t have gone into the metaverse in the first place. Talking in text is what I like about it.”
“But you’re talking in voice now! What’s the difference?”
My neighbour glanced at Edward. “I know you said we were to stay in our metaverse roles here, Edward,” she told him, “but you know I’m much more like the real me when I’m here with you guys. I’m more confident and outspoken inworld. I’m a different person there altogether.”
“My dearest Mary-Anne,” our founder said, “please don’t worry yourself about it for a second. I also said that anyone could assume here completely made-up personalities. The rule is in place only so that our real-life identities are protected, and I find your company at our table most delightful.”
“The thing is,” she continued, “it’s not like I’m pretending. When I’m online I become that person. If I had to speak in voice then that person would disappear.”
“I understand completely,” he reassured her.
“So what did you do next?” Indigo asked Begonia. “Or did you dump her?”
“I didn’t dump her,” she retorted, “I love her! But I did start trying to catch her out here and there, and paying attention to what she said to me. Rainy, do you have the printouts?”
“I do!” Rainy said, and she reached into her bag hung over the back of her chair. She brought out a wad of folded paper and flattened it out on the table. There were seven sets, all stapled neatly in the top-left corner; one for everyone at the table. “I asked Rainy to print these out for me. I thought it would make it easier.” The printouts were handed round the table. I heard Edward sigh faintly as he put glasses on to look at his copy. They were transcripts of IMs: four pages in total showing excerpts from three separate conversations.
“The first IM is from about three weeks ago,” Begonia told us. On screen, I could see she had her own paper copy. “Read it and tell me what you think.”
We read in silence. It went like this:
16:24 Begonia Bittersweet: So what bra size are you?
16:25 Trace Williams: 34b. Why?
16:25 Begonia Bittersweet: Just wondering.
16:25 Begonia Bittersweet: What type do you wear?
16:26 Trace Williams: What ‘type’?
16:26 Begonia Bittersweet: What? You don’t know?!
16:26 Trace Williams: Lace
16:26 Begonia Bittersweet laughs.
16:26 Begonia Bittersweet: I didn’t ask what they’re made out of.
16:26 Begonia Bittersweet: What *type*?
16:27 Trace Williams: Well, it all depends.
16:27 Begonia Bittersweet: Just for everyday when you go to work.
16:29 Trace Williams: Semi cup. What else would I wear?
16:29 Begonia Bittersweet: IDK… maybe you’re a full cup girl.
16:30 Trace Williams: I’m not 80, you know.
16:30 Begonia Bittersweet: Padded?
16:32 Trace Williams: Absolutely.
16:32 Trace Williams: The air conditioning in my office is bloody freezing sometimes.
16:32 Trace Williams: I don’t want my coworkers to nickname me ‘pointy’.
Indigo laughed at the last bit. Raw said, “I don’t get it.” Jennifer scratched her head and rubbed her chin.
“What are we supposed to make of this?” I asked.
“Look at the timings for each comment,” Begonia replied. “It took her a whole minute to reply to my first question. What girl wouldn’t be able to answer that immediately?”
“You think he was looking it up?” Raw asked.
“We don’t know it’s a ‘he,’ Raw,” Jennifer said to him.
“If it’s a ‘she’ then there wouldn’t be a need to research anything,” he answered.
Indigo waved her hand a little dismissively. “The time could mean anything. Maybe she was in another IM with someone else and switching back and forth between your conversation and theirs. I do that all the time.”
“And then it took me nearly four minutes to get an answer to my bra-type question. And her first answer was lace! I mean come on!”
“I do sort my bras according to fabric,” said Indigo. “It’s just the way I’ve always done it.”
“As do I,” Begonia answered. “I’d still know what that question meant.”
“I agree it’s suggestive, but you’re talking about a question posed to a person who might be distracted and which could be open to interpretation in different ways than the one you assume.” Indigo took a sip of wine and added, “For me, the ‘pointy’ remark balances it out: that’s female knowledge.”
“He still could have seen that on a webpage,” commented Raw through a mouthful of pizza. “He had enough time.”
“Okay,” Begonia said. “Now have a read of the second IM.”
20:31 Trace Williams: Not in the mood?
20:31 Begonia Bittersweet: Oh baby, Aunt Flo is paying me a visit.
20:32 Trace Williams: She is?
20:32 Begonia Bittersweet: Most definitely.
20:33 Trace Williams: You don’t have privacy?
20:33 Begonia Bittersweet: Huh?
20:33 Trace Williams: Your aunt is staying with you?
20:33 Begonia Bittersweet: hahaha
20:34 Begonia Bittersweet: You’re so funny.
20:34 Begonia Bittersweet: Look it up.
20:36 Trace Williams: ahhhhh
20:36 Trace Williams blushes.
20:36 Begonia Bittersweet: Why the blush?
20:36 Begonia Bittersweet: We’re all ladies here.
20:37 Trace Williams: Blushing at my ignorance.
20:37 Begonia Bittersweet: Different people; different terms, I guess.
20:37 Begonia Bittersweet: No worries.
20:37 Begonia Bittersweet: When do you come on?
20:38 Trace Williams: Usually around the middle of the month.
20:38 Begonia Bittersweet: So last week?
20:38 Trace Williams: Yes yes
20:38 Begonia Bittersweet: I wonder if we’ll synchronise.
20:39 Begonia Bittersweet: That would be weird.
I kept my face steadfastly neutral through this, but Raw made no such attempt. “Eww,” he said, when it finally dawned on him what he was reading about.
“Oh grow up, Raw,” Rainy said. “Women have periods. It’s a fact of life.” She sighed. “Men are so pathetic.”
“So you’re showing us this because she didn’t know what the term meant?” Indigo asked.
“Well quite! What woman wouldn’t know about good old Aunt Flo?!”
“Different people, different terms?” she quoted.
“Oh come on,” Begonia retorted. “It’s not like I’m seeing an Indonesian. She’s from the states!”
“Still a cultural term, though,” I remarked, “and not one you’d commonly hear through the traditional media. It seems to me that that sort of colloquialism is probably propagated through word of mouth. If a different term was commonly used amongst your friends growing up, then that would be your euphemism.”
“Shark week,” Mary-Anne volunteered. “That’s what we called it in college.”
“The term ‘Aunt Flo’ is everywhere on the internet,” Begonia insisted.
“Not all of us girls spend our time online talking about our periods,” Indigo countered.
The distant woman sighed. “Okay fine. Let’s look at the last IM then.”
17:22 Begonia Bittersweet: Is everything ok, honey?
17:22 Trace Williams: Oh sure, everything’s fine.
17:22 Trace Williams: I’m just a bit sad because I heard a colleague of mine died today.
17:23 Begonia Bittersweet: Oh baby, I’m so sorry to hear that!
17:23 Trace Williams: Thank you. It’s just a bit of a shock. It was very sudden.
17:23 Trace Williams: He died of a heart attack.
17:23 Begonia Bittersweet: He died in the office?
17:23 Trace Williams: Oh no, at home last night.
17:24 Trace Williams: But I heard about it today.
17:24 Begonia Bittersweet: 😦
17:24 Begonia Bittersweet: Did you know him well?
17:24 Trace Williams: Reasonably.
17:24 Trace Williams: His desk was around the corner from me.
17:25 Trace Williams: It’s funny, the last time I spoke to him he was peeing nin the cubicle next to me.
17:25 Trace Williams: You never know when your last conversation with someone is going to be.
17:25 Begonia Bittersweet: Right.
17:26 Begonia Bittersweet: Wait… a *guy* was in the next cubicle?
17:27 Trace Williams: Oh right. I see your confusion. We have unisex toilets at work.
17:27 Begonia Bittersweet: Really?
17:27 Trace Williams: Yeah. It’s not as bad as you think.
17:27 Trace Williams: The walls and doors are floor to ceiling.
17:28 Begonia Bittersweet: Ah.
17:28 Begonia Bittersweet: How can you hold a conversation if there are no gaps?
17:28 Trace Williams: Well the walls are still pretty thin.
17:28 Begonia Bittersweet: Right.
17:29 Begonia Bittersweet: Even so, I think I’d hand in my resignation if they enforced that sort of thing on me LOL
17:29 Trace Williams laughs.
On finishing this, Indigo said, “Yeah I heard about arrangements like that.”
Begonia’s eyebrows raised. “Really? I wondered if that might be made up.”
“Nope. They use it in a new senior school near where I live. Boys, girls, men and women: everyone in together. It saves space and it cuts down on bullying. Apparently the staff made a fuss about it, but the head teacher insisted, and everyone was used to it within a couple of days.”
Begonia sighed. “Dear God. Stuff like this makes me feel so old.”
“Progress bears no responsibility for those that can’t keep up,” Edward muttered.
“Is that what it is?” asked Begonia. “Progress? If you ask me, it’s just political correctness gone mad.”
“There is nothing mad about political correctness, I assure you.”
“What’s the big deal with separate facilities anyway?” Jennifer asked. “What difference does it make?”
“The ladies is where you do girl talk,” Begonia replied. “You wouldn’t understand.”
That remark brought about another uncomfortable silence. It was broken after a few seconds by Raw, who was picking at the onion on his pizza and frowning. “The gents is where I go if I need to fart,” he said.
“Raw!” Rainy exclaimed. “If you please!”
“What?” The young man looked confused. “We can talk about periods but not about farting?”
“You go right ahead and talk about it,” Jennifer told him.
“Oh, and another thing that’s odd about this,” Begonia said, “is I thought guys hate having cubicle conversations.”
“That’s true, definitely,” Raw said.
“You hate it?” Indigo asked.
“So do I,” I said, “but so what? Perhaps a new norm gets established if you become used to unisex toilets.” Begonia and her by-the-way attacks on Jennifer was starting to get on my nerves. I wasn’t about to let a stereotype lend weight to her argument.
“It’s a different rule when you’re at the urinal though,” Raw added, still frowning at his onions.
“I would have thought you’d be even less likely to talk if you there was a woman on the other side of the divide,” Begonia said, dismissively. “Oh well. That’s all I have, really. So you’re saying none of this is evidence?”
“None of it’s conclusive evidence,” Indigo stated. “Does she dress well?”
“Oh yes. A new outfit every week. She reads all the right blogs.”
“Again,” I commented, “so what if she doesn’t? Not all women follow the latest fashions.”
“Alright.” Begonia made no attempt to conceal her disappointment. “And you’ve got nothing to add, ‘Jennifer’?” She didn’t make the quote marks with her fingers or anything, but I could hear them in her tone of voice.
“No no,” Jennifer said, tight-lipped.
“Well don’t declare it a lost case just yet,” declared Raw. “We haven’t asked Edward what he thinks. He’s the one who always solves our mysteries.”
“This time,” Edward said gruffly, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you all. I have nothing to add to this deliberation… except to say that perhaps we should not be pursuing it in the first place.”
Everyone went silent. Mary-Anne, asked, “Why not, Edward?”
“My dear,” he told her, “you told us yourself that you become a different person in the metaverse. That is one of its functions: to allow us to explore new identities and all the thoughts and actions which spring forth from them. It is not for any of us to judge which are the correct and incorrect identities for people to assume, nor their reasons for doing so.”
“I think I have a right to know if I’m being lied to,” Begonia said flatly.
“As a matter of fact, you don’t. Check those terms and conditions you ticked when you first signed up to the metaverse. No-one has a right to know anything. Disclosure of real life details is entirely voluntary. But even if it were the case, what exactly constitutes a lie? Is Mary-Anne lying when she becomes her avatar personality? Is Jennifer lying when she talks and thinks and notices things as a woman? What if those identities come alive when they are enacted? What if they are real things? I will say one thing about these messages we’ve read tonight: they show you two to have a close and caring relationship. Does anything else really matter?”
“I get what you’re saying,” Begonia replied. “But Edward, I’m a lesbian woman. If this is a guy I’m with then it’s a waste of my time.”
“Are you hoping to meet in real life?” Indigo asked.
“No way. I have a partner in real life and I have no intention of leaving her. Trace knows that. Real life is real life; metaverse is metaverse.”
“In which case,” Edward asked, “why not let love just be love?”
“Because it’s not that simple.”
“Isn’t it a shame,” he said sadly, “that it can’t be.”
After that, there didn’t seem to be much else to add. Begonia excused herself and ended the video call, and those of us who wanted it ordered dessert. The conversation was strained. Rainy in particular was very quiet. Eventually, she said, “I’m sorry, Edward. On reflection, I’m not sure it was all that sensible of me to bring Bego this evening.” Edward smiled in reply and said, “On the contrary, my dear; I formed this group for us to discuss metaverse matters and that’s exactly what we’ve done tonight. Disagreement is a bona fide conversational element, and sometimes quite necessary.” He wagged a finger. “Its presence alone shouldn’t be taken as some sort of indicator that the conversation should not have taken place.”
When we left the restaurant about twenty minutes later, I walked with him to the nearby multistorey where we were both parked. “Purely as an academic exercise,” I said, “do you think it’s possible to tell if someone’s a man or a woman in real life?”
“Thinking about plots for your latest novel, are you?” he asked with a chuckle. I replied, “I’m always doing that, Edward!”
“You know as well as I that it’s never a question of just one thing to look out for,” my white-haired friend told me. “It’s the details you have to be alert to when you suspect someone of constructing a falsehood. All of them! Most people will give themselves away in time. The question is, will anyone notice when they do?”
I stopped. “You know, don’t you? You did work it out!”
“Oh yes,” he said. “But it wasn’t the right thing to reveal it. If he will not say then that is his choice, Leonard. Begonia is quite free to leave him if she so wishes. He has no right to her love, but neither does she have any right to his details.”
“But how did you work it out?” Conveniently, we were beneath a lamp post. Edward took out and unfolded his copy of the IM transcript. “This is strictly between you and I,” he told me. I nodded.
He pointed to the following line:
17:25 Trace Williams: It’s funny, the last time I spoke to him he was peeing nin the cubicle next to me.
“Ah,” I said. “So you weren’t convinced by the unisex toilets excuse?”
“That is neither here nor there,” Edward replied. “It’s the error that gives him away.”
“Error? What error?”
“Look more closely. See here: he typed an extra n. ‘Nin’ instead of ‘in’.”
“A typo. How can that mean anything?”
“An edit, my friend. Not a typo, but an edit. He wrote something, then he edited it, and then he hit return. We do it all the time, don’t we? Except in this instance he didn’t quite edit it completely. So now we must ask ourselves, what was it he wrote in the first place?”
I looked at the sentence again. My mind was a blank. “I have no idea.”
“Well here’s what I think he wrote: ‘the last time I spoke to him he was peeing next to me.’”
“Oh my God!” I exclaimed. “Yes! You’re right, you must be!”
“And why did he edit it? Because he thought that might arouse suspicion. Except if he had left it as it was then that would have been just something else that could have been put down to the different ways in which different people talk about such things. ‘He was peeing next to me’: why shouldn’t a woman say that about someone in the next cubicle. Do you see? It is the edit which gives him away. It’s that which tells us he was actually standing side-by-side with him at a urinal. As young Raw remarked, conversation between two men there is nothing out of the ordinary at all.”
We walked on. “And you worked all that out from a single letter,” I remarked.
“Clues are rarely big and brightly coloured, my dear fellow,” Edward replied. “Sometimes, it’s just as well that they’re not.”
Written by Huckleberry Hax