You Can Leave Your Head On

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You Can Leave Your Head On by Jessica Hundley


My eyes itch. The computer screen glows icy blue. I want to be asleep. I want to be wrapped in the thick down comforter my mother sent me for my birthday, just in time to keep me warm in a newly empty bed, my six-year relationship now over. But I also want to be distracted from being that newly single woman — this is why I am online.


I’m drawn to the combination of sex and technology in the same way I’m attracted to men with a tendency to analyze: I am fascinated, but frightened of bringing my warm and sloppy indecision, my stumbling, grinning, unpredictable emotions to the communal table.


Its name: the Avatar. Its function: to provide an on-screen representation of yourself which can roam through virtual worlds, meet other representations of other people’s selves, share thoughts, play games, divulge intimacies and maybe, just maybe, get laid. The premise is relatively simple. You log on to any one of the Avatar worlds (Vzones.com, Avaterra.com), pay a registration fee and feed the computer your statistics.


The opening page of the site proclaims grandly, “This Is Your Day of Freedom.” And this is the day you can add false facts to your bio, take on a new identity and begin to live it. Considering the state of my offline world, this is a seductive promise. The Avatar gatekeepers ask for my name, age, profession and annual income. I pause. Who do I want to be right now? Jessica Hundley, twenty-nine, unemployed, broken in spirit and bank account? Or should I be a man? A senator? A porn star? I decide I want to be sophisticated, aggressive, cultured. I decide on the name Ann (my middle) Miller (copped from Henry). Ann is forty (and more beautiful than ever), a poet by trade and apparently a damn successful one since I list her income at $80,000 a year. She divides her time between a studio in New York City and a farmhouse in Vermont. She knows her wines. She’s well traveled. She’s had a long and torrid love affair with a Spanish sculptor. She’s got a light tan and freckles and she wears her long hair up in a loose bun; stray pieces fall against her face.


I begin to see the Avatar allure. I hit return.


I am already lost. The screen flickers for a moment and there is color, bright primary color leaping out of a simplistically rendered cartoon paradise. Strange plants dazzle, weird trees pitch and lean in a world culled from the animations of Hanna Barbara and the illustrations of Dr. Suess. There are people here. My Avatar brethren. Figures with small stocky bodies and disproportionately large heads move around me in robotic lopes. They are dressed in a bizarre array of finery: tall purple hats, bright flowers woven into yellow hair, sloped elfin caps, Indian headdresses. Some have replaced their human heads with those of animals, including cats, dogs and monkeys. The bodies are disturbing in their defined muscularity, the buttocks plump and vaguely obscene. My Avatar is a shapely blonde. She’s wearing a black shirt and blue jeans which appear to be acid-washed, a fact which make me slightly uneasy. I want some flowers for my hair and maybe a sexy, short, hemmed skirt. I want to look hot.


It takes me a few moments to acclimate, but eventually a combination of keyboard commands and mouse clicks leads me across the screen. An Avatar in a blue hat says something to me, but by the time I’ve typed in my answer he’s gone. The Avatars “talk” through speech bubbles which appear directly over their heads, and “whisper” via “ESP” conversations. The first day I barely speak to anyone.


My second day’s interactions are marked by an impatience and straightforwardness I rarely display in real life. Ann wants to get laid and Ann is not prepared to be a wallflower. Once I’ve mastered moving, I begin wandering around asking people if they want to fuck. This doesn’t go over well. My fellow Avatars unfortunately possess a uniformly conservative attitude. They don’t take kindly to this sort of female offensive. I try to imagine what sort of faces are gazing into the screen. Do they sit in darkened teenage bedrooms, walls covered in pages torn from Wired and photos of Lara Croft ? Or are they soft-fleshed older men with watery eyes, copping some fantasy on company time? Housewives? The elderly? An ex-boyfriend?


I change my tactics. I stand around looking lost. Eventually a thin-faced Avatar in a peaked, striped hat asks me if I need help. I do. Elfboy shows me the phallic vending machines where I can exchange the coins in my pocket (all Avatars start out with a little cash and from there they trade and barter) for a new head and clothes. I go with black hair this time, keep the black shirt and add some black pants that I like to think of as leather. Ann becomes an aging Angelina Jolie–bad girl with a fondness for younger men. Elfboy is starting to look real good. My new dependence on his Avatar experience has fostered a full-blown crush. Elfboy knows the ropes. He walks tall and proud in his purple pants. He’s so . . . helpful. He tells me he’s twenty-two years old and lives at home. He could be lying, but who’d make that up? And there’s something in the way he speaks (types) that sounds twenty-two. I picture him pasty-faced and doughy, with a computer system that rivals NASA but no car. This conjecture makes me bold.


“You wanna fuck?” He stands there for a moment as if he can’t believe his little Avatar ears. Then he snips, “People will think you’re a slut if you just ask like that.”


“I am a slut. Let’s fuck.”


“Why don’t you say something interesting?”


“Okay. ‘I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, how you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me, and parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart.'”


Elfboy beats a hasty retreat. The magic in Avatar rejection is that every interaction is based not on fact, but on faith. Faith in a person’s back story, faith in their description of their appearance, faith in their honesty. I can assume any number of offensive things about Elfboy’s non-Avatar reality. I hypothesize he is a wimpy flower of a boy who withers when faced with a female sex drive.





At this point I am still unsure exactly how one makes love, what sort of keyboard gymnastics it would require, but I am trusting in computer geek perversion that someone has found a way. My despondency over Elfboy’s rejection moves quickly into comraderie when I meet a young woman named Netty, who claims to be from Australia. We sit on a park bench in a psychedelic Central Park; Netty wins my favor with her adeptness at berating our fellow Avatars with witty put-downs concerning their clothes or hair or chosen heads. Our words hover above our Avatar heads for all the (Avatar) world to see. Ann doesn’t care and neither does Netty. They can all go screw themselves. The female Avatars give us wide berth but after a while I notice a few males hovering at the periphery. I hurl a vicious insult as a challenge. One of them, an Italian-looking Avatar with dark hair and bulging biceps, comes forward and flexes his muscles. He peacocks and preens in silence, then produces a dozen stoplight-red roses from his pocket. I am charmed despite myself.


“Do you like my ass?” Joey finally breaks his silence.


“Do you like my ass?” he repeats.


“Wanna fuck?” I ask.


I am right. The geeks have found a way. In answer to my query Joey steps in front of me. His arms go up, fluttering, into the Avatar air. An ESP from him pops onto my screen.


“Stand up.” Ann stands up. Joey bends his squat body over, pushing his buttocks into my crotch. I watch as Ann stares back at me, impassive and yielding. And Joey begins to hop.


“I want you so bad . . . You’re so beautiful.”


“I look like all the other girls. Everyone’s got this head.”


“It doesn’t matter. I can tell you’re beautiful.”


“Really?” I am blushing. My Avatar isn’t.


“Yes. You’re spunky. You’ve got guts.”


“I wanted to fuck. Is this fucking?”


“It’s as close as we’re going to get.” Joey drifts away. I sit on my bench, clutching my roses and gazing into the distance. I am no longer an innocent.


Over the next few months I go online as Tom, a burly, mustached stockbroker from Tacoma; as Randy, a seventeen-year-old gay kid who claimed to look like a young David Bowie; and as “Yellow Rose,” a ballsy Texas stripper. I get laid in all my guises, although with Randy it happens less. The Avatar sexual preference, as far as I can discern (and as far as people are willing to admit), is predominately hetero and follows the ritualistic dance of flirtation to consummation that you’ll see in any urban bar (albeit faster and lacking in any actual human contact).


Eventually, the Avaterra mother company gets wise to the fact that geeks around the world are trying in vain to manipulate their characters into compromising positions. As a result, Seducity.com is born, a smut-centric site where those wishing to immerse their Avatar in sordidness can let their inner perv run free. The domain comprises bordellos, strip clubs, swingers’ bars, cruising spots in sprawling parks and a wide selection of handy locales for both public and private sex. Seducity works on much the same premise as its more conservative predecessor, but for the fact that these Avatars can take off all their clothes and screw each other with wild abandon, in a variety of creative positions, their pixelated genitals standing erect or wide open, their rounded buttocks pumping up and down in a twisted facsimile of human coupling.


I have no trouble getting laid in Seducity. I walk into a group sex area, lay my Avatar on the floor, spread my long, tanned legs and wait. Soon a line of male and female characters is forming to stick it to me. But there is something hollow in it, something not quite as intimate as a friendly conversational give-and-take or even some ESP dirty talk. It’s too much like casual sex, I think, and head back to Avaterra.


I learn that my fellow Avatars are mostly in their early twenties, a distinct subset of musical theater folk, role-playing geeks and cyber-punk wannabes. The vast expanse of Vzones is populated by lovable losers who have found a space for themselves in this Day-Glo land of plenty. And I, over the months, have become one of them. My involvement with the Avatars has grown into a mild obsession. The ironic distance is gone. And while I maintain a healthy communication with the outside world, there are times (in too-loud bars, alone at crowded parties) when I long for an Avatar. But other times, the abstract, anonymous Avatar world, absent touch, taste and smell, only compounds my own loneliness.


It doesn’t help that I am lying nearly pathologically. I have yet to tell anyone who I really am, and I have no intention of doing so. For the most part, I consider my Vzone lies to be white. Then one day, I am seducing a man as a man (my exuberantly gay alter-ego Randy) and my conquest begins to confess personal details and secret fantasies. I never guessed he would fall for me — how can I begin to comprehend the intimacies shared between two men? I am proud at the unexpected success of my fabricated persona, yet my cheeks are hot with shame. Who am I betraying, exactly?


Eventually I garner enough experience to be able to discern when someone is lying — a hesitancy before the words appear in the speech bubble, the number of spelling errors, the clumsiness of sentence structure. For the most part, people stop lying after the first few minutes, and if they go into ESP mode, they are almost always about to reveal something personal (or obscene). I hear about floundering marriages, failing careers, sick families. Ann seems to make the most friends. She is an observer, she listens. One man tells Ann, after a few stilted greetings, that he is in love with his best friend’s wife, and has been for a year. My gay character is privy to more than one pseudo-outing. The sex becomes secondary — it’s the skewed intimacy that turns me on; the secrets, either told or heard, are titillating. Via Ann, I tell more than one complete stranger about my failed relationship, on Avatar dates in parks, hotel lobbies, restaurants and bedrooms. Though none of these dates lead to anything resembling a relationship, I do find, in this temporary, two-way confessional, the distraction I went looking for. And as for the sex, it’s not much different from any kind of casual sex on the rebound: you go looking for revenge, or power, or catharsis, and what you find is a sense of the absurdity of two strange bodies bumping in the night, a hurried thrill and, if you’re lucky, an ounce of communion.



Jessica Hundley and Nerve.com