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    A love life online

    By JOYCE R. SLATER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2000


    The internet was supposed to improve the quality of our lives, right? Already, though, we're hearing horror stories about the dark side of this electronic marvel: children lured from their homes, credit cards stolen, solid marriages destroyed by faceless strangers. Jenny Wilder's brand new marriage isn't crumbling yet, but there are visible cracks in the foundation: Jenny has a secret lover who lives in her computer.

    When Jenny, a 30-plus Manhattan psychiatrist with a chic clientele, married her husband, a handsome Marine colonel, he had seemed like a breath of fresh air, a dream come true. But on the day before the wedding, Charlie gave his bride-to-be two nightmarish surprises. First, he was being transferred to sleepy little Brevert, S.C. Second, and even more terrifying, he was bringing along two fat, mean-spirited children. Patsy and Rusty were now solely his, thanks to the sudden death of his ex-wife.

    Jenny tried to make the best of things, really she did. She tried to find amusement in her new patients: "My Southerners are all sad because they have problems but they're proud, too, because whatever's eating them dates back to the War Between the States ... " And she tried to endear herself to Charlie's monstrous children despite the fact that they treat her with undisguised loathing. If a shrink can't handle this situation, who can?

    Our heroine didn't go into cyberspace looking for love, or even for its virtual equivalent. During one of her husband's frequent absences, missing her friends in New York, she logs on out of curiosity. What caught her eye is a Web site that advertises itself as a refuge, a meeting place for intellectuals and top-level corporate executives. "StElene" is no tacky chat room with vinyl chairs and a Coke machine. It's an exclusive tropical island at the center of which is the "GrandHotel." The beauty and seductive luxury of the place is lovingly described: a gated community for the lonely elite, if you will. Guests -- players? customers? -- are invited to choose a fantasy name, create a room of their own, then mix and mingle with the others in the "Ballroom."

    Jenny is promptly entranced. She calls herself "Zan" and decorates "Zan's Tower," an airy space with gauzy mauve curtains. Online, she meets "Reverdy." He's a historian, he says, attempting to encode some revolutionary timeline. They exchange stories about their respective unhappy marriages, but the keyboard small talk abruptly escalates into explicit, passionate exchanges. Jenny's in love. Or rather, Zan is. How can this be? Reverdy, an old hand at this game, explains his theory of performative utterance. "You are what you type."

    Jenny's fine mind tells her that she's getting in over her head; her heart tells her something else. "In ideal love," she rationalizes, "there are no bad times and no misunderstandings. There is only expectation." Jenny is addicted. She meets her lover at 2 in the morning, when the trusting Charlie is sound asleep. "@findreverdy" she types. "When life disconnects them, she dies every minute that falls in between."

    As the affair intensifies, the pair exchange real names and real e-mail addresses. Zan also gives her real phone number and address, but Reverdy doesn't reciprocate. It seems he has an angry ex-lover on StElene. When he dumped her, the vengeful "Mireya" tracked him down IRL -- in real life. She called his wife and his employer, wrote ugly letters. So Zan can see that he must be cautious, can't she? Of course she can.

    Back in the '50s, when Reed began sending her stories to book publishers and magazines, no one knew what to make of them. Or her. Editors, mostly male at the time, found her work too strange, too angry, too "women's lib."

    But they also found her too witty and too talented to ignore. In the end, they called it science-fiction and the label stuck.

    In the decades since, Reed has built what amounts to a cult following, an appetite for deliciously different tales like those in her 1999 collection, Weird Women, Wired Women. Now time and technology have caught up with Kit Reed's cutting-edge mindset; what was once considered eccentric is now mainstream.

    @ expectations may be as close to conventional storytelling as this free spirit may ever come. In this chilling story, Reed demonstrates, more insightfully than any other author I've read, the transformative power and the built-in threat of the brave, new electronic world.

    Joyce R. Slater is a writer who lives in Kennesaw, Ga.

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