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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."