The scary but rewarding process of stepping out from behind the pseudonym.
John was upset. Pacing-around-the-room upset. "You have to stop writing about our sex life." he said. "When I told Patty I twisted my foot on Saturday, she was like 'Oh? Right after you ate your girlfriend's pussy?' How the hell do my friends know this shit?" John and I were living together at this point. I put on a frilly apron to cook him Korean food; he put up shelving with power tools. We were protective of our domestic bliss. And yet this conversation seemed to poke into our bubble more and more often.
"We agreed that as long as I didn't use your name, it's kosher," I said. From the moment we met, he knew I was documenting our non-fucking, bed fucking, every-which-way fucking. It had never been hush-hush; I always gave him a heads-up, then emails with links. He'd told me, "I don't feel comfortable with your writing, but I won't stand in the way of your self-expression."
"But I never asked to be part of your stories." He looked at me as if my writing was etched all over my skin, a radioactive tattoo that needed a Silkwood-style scrubbing. "Jesus! Will you just be a normal person and stop blabbing everything to the world?"
We had a screaming match. I sat at the edge of the bed, remembering seventh grade, when my mother had held my spiral notebook in front of my face and yelled, "Why are you writing about sex? About such ugly, disgusting things? My hands shook when I read it…" Just as I had then, I cried and cried, back to being that confused seventh grader, that girl who was too young to accept shame gracefully.
But as a grown woman, I was calloused with anger and defensiveness. "Fine," I said. "You don't want me to write about you? I won't. I'll cut you out. I'll black bar your name. I'll censor myself. I hope you're happy that you've become North Korea." Later, I swallowed the argument, promising myself that I'd wake up carefree, as if we'd never fought. Yet I was uneasy. Did John have a point? Was I selfishly choosing self-disclosure over the feelings of a loved one? What was driving me to let everything hang out? I felt around the nightstand for my phone, ready to tweet about this conundrum. But I never did.
I'd been writing explicitly about my sex life since before I met John. But none of my previous muses had ever fallen in love with me.
John refused to read my Nerve articles. He couldn't take the negative comments thrown my way. For my part, while I marveled at how some people could express their hostility in such cute terms — like calling me a Korean Snooki — I didn't let the comments get to me. "They're anonymous; no harm, no foul," I told him. But when John heard someone say that I would end up dead in a dumpster, his forearms bulged like Popeye. "If I ever meet that motherfucker, I will punch their mouth so hard that their mom will feel it."
I was lounging in a crumpled t-shirt, zit medicine caked on my face. "Why does it bother you so much? I'm the one being accused of destroying American culture, not you."
"If someone said some shit like that to you on the street, I'd make them apologize. Why is it different if someone says it to you on the internet?"
"It's not a big deal, John. They're like a Greek chorus of haters. They probably watch Faces of Death for fun."
"Fuck them. They don't even have the balls to use their real names."
"I don't use my real name, either," I said.
"But that's different. You're trying to protect the people you write about."
Which was a generous way to look at it. But was I using a pseudonym just to protect others? It wasn't like I was planning a future in politics. And those misogynistic, slut-shaming comments — I had to admit that they were easier to brush off when directed towards a pen name.
A priest raised his palms skyward, chanting in Latin. Behind him, the morning sun streamed through the stained-glass windows. I was at the funeral of John's grandfather.
Before we stepped into the church, John told me: "I don't think it's a good idea to tell my family about… you know… that you write about sex."
"Why should I hide it?" I said. "Without sex, we wouldn't be here."
John kissed my cheek. "I know. But my mom has been practicing how to say your name."
NEXT: "Was my dress appropriately somber? Or did it scream, 'Here is the girl who writes about your son's penis!'"
Two hours later, I was inside the Catholic Men's League, a modest rec hall, holding a paper plate heaped with that Jell-o/Cool Whip/macaroni mixture that seemed to show up in every Midwestern buffet table.
"Different from New York, huh?" John's mother smiled at me. From the first minute, she had welcomed me with open arms. So had his uncles and aunts and cousins and family pets. John and I were even allowed to sleep in the same room. Having been raised as a Confucian, I was beaming from all the elder approval.
"I've never been to Illinois," I said. "Or any farming town." I wondered if my black American Apparel dress (cheap and stretchy) was appropriately somber. Or did it scream, "Here is the girl from New York who writes about your son's penis!"
From the corner of my eye, I saw a tall woman walking aimlessly. She had been in the church, bony shoulders shaking with loud sobs. John's mother waved at her. "Melinda! Melinda! Have you met John's girlfriend?"
Aunt Melinda came up to me, and put her face unusually close to mine. I could see my greasy nose reflected on her glasses. "Who are you?" she asked me.
"John's girlfriend," his mother said again. "They live in Brooklyn. She tells me that their neighborhood is affordable now, but in another two years, they'll probably have to move. Isn't it a wonder how these kids survive in such an expensive city?"
Aunt Melinda nodded politely and walked away.
In Sanskrit, an avatar is a god who manifests on the earthly plane. And, in some way, aren't we all gods online? With limitless power to create, modify, and delete, with the click of a profile button? Maybe that's why the term was appropriated by science fiction, and is now what we call one's online self. That's why I chose "Avatar Koo" as my pen name. Until James Cameron came along, most people assumed Avatar was a made-up name. Others smiled and said, "How very meta." I felt so clever. But as I contemplated using my real name online, I didn't feel clever — I felt terrified.
I didn't want Google to put both names together, forever and forever. I wondered how others, especially women, had been bold enough to transgress polite conversation about sex and relationships. I had admired bloggers who dared face the judgments of the online mob. I'd read brave essays and books, their words often blushing, barely able make eye contact, lighting up cigarette after cigarette in an effort to seem invulnerable. Yet their hearts were still right there on their sleeves.
Of course, those writers got nasty comments. That was easy to predict. But the real revelation was that there were also many comments that mirrored my own feelings: thank you thank you thank you. Because you said it first, now the rest of us feel brave enough to say it too.
John constantly asked me, "Why the hell do you need to write about sex? Don't you see that you're attracting bad attention? Is that what you want?"
No, I didn't want that sort of attention. It's not fun being called a narcissist or attention whore. But so many other women have faced far worse than I have. I was hiding behind their strong bodies. When I brooded too long, I saw a wall of eyes, staring at me, whispering: we can see who you really are now.
As an introvert, I've always found writing safe and intuitive. No need to keep up with the timing of face-to-face conversation. No worries of losing that moment, or barging in at the wrong time. No need to hold uncomfortable eye contact. Body language is negated. When a boyfriend of mine died violently a few years ago, most of my friends avoided me. When I spoke, I confused myself. I've never had the necessary social skills for moments like that. But when I wrote about it, I could finally understand some of what I really wanted to say. And when I shared my writing, there was always one person who said, "I understand you. And I think you would understand me."
It gradually began to dawn on me why I couldn't relate to people like Tila Tequila. Not because she craved attention — I need it as much as anyone. My lizard brain certainly feels a sense of biological relief, especially when receiving positive recognition. No, I couldn't relate to Tila because I felt as though she (like many others) preferred the connection to be funneled one-way, from others to her. That seemed so lonely to me.
The letter was written on floral stationary, in round and wobbly handwriting. This was Aunt Melinda's Christmas note to us.
John was livid. "She doesn't even know you! She just hears that we live together… who does she think she is? She's batshit crazy! I'm going to call my mom and let her know that Melinda is trying to cause drama…"
By this time, I had stopped detailing our sex life on Twitter. Or anywhere, really. As they say, the first time you see a unicorn on your lawn, it's a miracle. The hundredth time you see that unicorn, it's just another fancy horse. Documenting sex had become monotonous; discussing the complexities of our emotional bond was far more interesting.
"Why?" I asked. "It's not like Melinda will change her mind."
"But she's making it sound like our relationship is wrong and dirty. And it's not." John took my hand. "It's. Not."
"I agree. How can it be wrong and dirty if you're willing to schlep through snow so I don't have to pick up our laundry?"
"I'm being serious."
"Me too." We had had this conversation a million times before. But this time, it felt different. "No matter what, people are going to judge. It will never end."
He looked down at the frilly note. The words that condemned me without knowing me. When he finally looked back at me, I could tell he understood it all.
"They will, won't they?" John put the letter up on the fridge with my Hello Kitty ballerina magnet. "Whether you live your life exactly as they want, or exactly as you want."
I said, "I want to use my real name now."
Under the fluorescent glow of the kitchen light, John smiled at me. "Good."