IM what IM

As our sagging Internet company invented euphemisms for failure, Alice and I took refuge in instant messaging. She had a boyfriend but we couldn't stop.

Published June 29, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

A year ago, instant messaging was still a fairly recent marvel. According to an article in the Industry Standard, there were 60 million instant messaging users registered worldwide. The technology had been introduced less than three years prior, making IM the fastest growing communication channel of all time.

I was, by nature, moving a bit slower. Each morning, at a public relations agency hyping Internet start-ups and video game companies, I dumped nearly 100 e-mails into my in box and each evening outlasted northbound congestion snowboarding on a yet-to-be-released PlayStation 2. Numbers everywhere were in the superlatives.

IM allows people to talk live with one another through lines of text on a screen, like a conversation in subtitles. Our office equipped each of us with IM programs in late spring. I called myself Halcyon992, immature but excusable as new economy.

I began seeing Alice around the same time. She worked three cubes over. She had gray eyes and was kind to everyone she met. She also had someone else in her life. And from the beginning, I pictured the end of us, breaking up in a parking lot after a helpless, cinematic kiss goodbye, or else me, sacrificing my job in the name of everything else.

We were encouraged to use IM often, as it was a fast and easy way to get in touch with clients. Our V.P., Jackie, used it most among the 12 of us in the office, silently communicating with people who were sitting within conversational earshot.

Jackier: going downstairs to grab a bite. want anything?
Halcyon992: no, but thanks anyway
Jackier: k :)

We created a noiseless firestorm of IM flashes. Exchanges were splintered, with multiple conversations blinking back and forth at once. Someone would click the wrong IM handle and the message was slipped into the wrong hands. But the only words I worried about were those I wrote for Alice.

AbsenceofAlice: are you on?
Halcyon992: yes
Halcyon992: jackie just offered to get food for me
AbsenceofAlice: you two are havin g an affair arent you
Halcyon992: is this the kind of stuff you sit aoround dreaming up?
AbsenceofAlice: usually

Halcyon992: so can i ask you something?
AbsenceofAlice: of course
Halcyon992: forge tit
AbsenceofAlice: excuse me?
Halcyon992: sorry
Halcyon992: that should be - forget it
AbsenceofAlice: because that sounds more like a command
Halcyon992: great

Alice and I had driven to the beach one night, leaving a trade show party where Kiss had been hired to play, and sat down together in the sand, having been on our feet all day. With the San Francisco glow safely off in the hills, we moved in closer to each other and stayed from 1 a.m. until the white sunrise.

At the office the next morning, we stared at our computer screens to keep from laughing and a magnetic pull began to grow within the wires connecting us. Endless ribbons of dialogue unfolded from there. I reported to work each day for conversations with a blazing Roman candle.

Halcyon992: howre things going?
AbsenceofAlice: these guys are potheads now instead of drunks
Halcyon992: what?
AbsenceofAlice: sorry that was for someone else
AbsenceofAlice: writing too fast
Halcyon992: who?
AbsenceofAlice: what do you mean who
Halcyon992: who were you talking to?
Halcyon992: and while im at it, about what
AbsenceofAlice: have you finished the release yet?
Halcyon992: are you chaging the subject?
AbsenceofAlice: yes
Halcyon992: ok
AbsenceofAlice: why, is there somehting you want to talk about?
Halcyon992: maybe
AbsenceofAlice: your first question first, things are fine. im busy its crazy.

I waited weeks for a reminder that this had to stop. I was the other guy and didn't even know her middle name. This fling would run its course for her and I would be flung. You can't keep it up, friends said. But during the day, meetings or phone calls incessantly preempted this discussion. When we could, we would talk through them.

Halcyon992: are you still there
AbsenceofAlice: y
AbsenceofAlice: on the newsweek call
Halcyon992: oh sorry

When the session box clicked closed, the text disappeared completely and forever. We'd start over.

Halcyon992: still on the phone
AbsenceofAlice: yes
Halcyon992: what are you doing after work
AbsenceofAlice: mostly nothing
Halcyon992: do you want to meet me at
Halcyon992: thebench on the hill?
AbsenceofAlice: ok
Halcyon992: are you sure?
AbsenceofAlice: why do you not want to?
Halcyon992: no, i do but i was just makiong sure
AbsenceofAlice: wait theyre asking me something

AbsenceofAlice: this reporter has no idea what shes talking about
Halcyon992: not that our guy does either
AbsenceofAlice: right
AbsenceofAlice: so yes i want to see you too

AbsenceofAlice: sorry i was acting weird earlier today
Halcyon992: me too

Summer arrived early. Jackie announced that two clients were cutting P.R. She used the word "sunsetting." Their venture capital money had dried up, she said. No need for an aggressive press strategy when all the news was turning bad.

Halcyon992: maybe you and I could sunset
AbsenceofAlice: are you trying to hit on me?
Halcyon992: not sure
AbsenceofAlice: you think its time we sunset?
Halcyon992: i dont know
Halcyon992: i was nver too handy with this jargon
AbsenceofAlice: would it help if i started to use little faces like this :)
AbsenceofAlice: ",)
Halcyon992: theyre called emoticons thank you and that last one doesn't exist
AbsenceofAlice: god ive really
Halcyon992: what
AbsenceofAlice: ive really blown all this havent i?

She was having trouble sleeping. I developed a habit of double-checking the receiver of each message I sent. Alice and I both ate only Cheetos for lunch, sometimes splitting a bag from the snack tray and flopping onto the inflatable furniture in our media room. We'd try not to touch hands while we watched CNNfn, formulating reasons why the show didn't feature our single remaining client's CEO.

Still, the Internet advanced. Forty-five million people had their hard drives chewed through by an e-mail bug named I Love You. A couple met and legally married online as their fantasy role-playing game characters. A Palestinian woman disguised her identity in a chat room and lured a Jewish teenager from Tel Aviv, Israel, to his death in the desert. Generations began to evolve with tinier fingers and wider rear ends.

Alice and I might exist in another blip on the digital landscape, one with the usual binary rhythm of one and twos, and we'd be saved. But never on this one, with the looming third party. I would have to give my two weeks' notice to Jackie.

AbsenceofAlice: you were cute at the meting
Halcyon992: i wnted to touch your leg
Jackier: yt?
Halcyon992: ok hold on
AbsenceofAlice: you know i don't want to stop this
Halcyon992: i have to talk to you later
AbsenceofAlice: but you don't feel the same
Halcyon992: not true
Halcyon992: im just no good at all this
AbsenceofAlice: im sorry
Halcyon992: this is just the worst time to talk
Halcyon992: its jackie
AbsenceofAlice: its ok
Halcyon992: also none of its your fault
Halcyon992: will you be here?
AbsenceofAlice: yes

Halcyon992: sorry just finishing up an email
Jackier: no prob :)
Jackier: need u to pull together some powerpt slides for the tg meeting
Halcyon992: sure
Jackier: need them by tmrrw morning
Halcyon992: just let me know when you will need them

Halcyon992: i mean, ok. sounds good

Jackier: thx ;)

I would, it was clear, need a few days to rehearse my quitting.

The PowerPoint slides started to pulsate by 9:30. I took a break to draft a resignation letter and a long e-mail to Alice. I left the office when I discovered I didn't know which one I was writing.

On a cold summer night after a colder summer day, I was taking the highway loops home at 90 miles an hour. But I didn't need to keep moving this fast, driving toward a fiery crash I assumed inevitable. If I could suspend my doubt long enough, I might stay to witness the things I expected to disintegrate, in fact, last.

In the coming months, in places like Wall Street, Redmond, Wash., and the Disneyland business theme village known as San Jose, they suffered the crisis of returning to normalcy. Many jobs and many mutual funds vanished. Others renewed themselves each morning.

I didn't leave my job for a long time. Until then, I began new conversations.

Halcyon992: i dont want to stop either
AbsenceofAlice: then we wont
Halcyon992: if you can jsut explain how we should do that
AbsenceofAlice: do what?
Halcyon992: not stop
AbsenceofAlice: now youre just being silly
AbsenceofAlice: as always
AbsenceofAlice: and there is no laughing aruond here anymore
Halcyon992: no most certainly not

By Nathaniel Missildine

Nathaniel Missildine is a writer living in San Francisco. His AOL Instant Messenger name is nmdine.

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