In the first year of the new millennium, instant messaging was the fastest growing communication technology of all time. Of its then 60 million purported users, Cecile and I were two young employees of a public relations agency hyping Internet start-ups and video game companies who cared only about the words we sent each other.
We sat in separate cubicles that shared a wall. Its segments fit together unevenly, leaving a narrow opening. We volleyed noiseless messages back and forth, five feet apart.
natm: fine i quit
cecilero: ok i will miss u
natm: you should come too
cecilero: where will u go?
natm: neptune or maybe mendocino
cecilero: i can see your left hand through the space
natm: i’m very serious
cecilero: this is typical
We were encouraged to use IM often, as it was the up-to-the-second way to communicate with clients. Exchanges were splintered, with multiple conversations blinking at once. Our VP, Pattie, sent missives with the fury of a Nasdaq ticker.
Pattier: heads up: out of pocket with ea til 4…
cecilero: pattie is writing to me
natm: no she’s writing to me
cecilero: same time
natm: she’s like a hydra
Pattier: need the % points from 99 and the final boiler on the release b4
cecilero: sorry i forgot to tell you but i am the hydra around here
natm: Thanks for your heads up, Pattie, I sent the finalized boilerplate this morning for your meeting with Electronic Arts. If they are not in your inbox, let me know and I will send them again.
In the evening, I commuted from the middle of the peninsula, north on highway 101, to the city. On Fridays, Cecile didn’t have a car. She did have, however, a fiancée whom she would be marrying that summer back in their native France. He needed their car every Friday. So I would give Cecile a ride. I never asked many questions.
We joked after work. Other times, we listened as the radio filled the contained interior space between us, inching toward San Francisco on the road glutted with the billboards of enchanted startups and cosmically revelatory business-to-business solutions. We passed the crowded airport and Candlestick Park, with a new brand name every season. We spotted windsurfers and surprise lane departure collisions.
On a Friday in the Spring of that year, Cecile talked faster with the passenger window open.
“My fiancée is out of town.”
“He’s in New York all the weekend. But it’s good because I have many things to plan. I don’t have our guest list even. I don’t want to think about it now.”
“The wedding, you mean?”
“You know a thing- tomorrow I will have twenty-nine.”
“Sorry, I mean to say, tomorrow I will BE twenty-nine. I’m using French.”
“I wish we had our age in English, instead of being it.”
“Anyway, my fiancée has something planned after he gets back, I think.”
“Your birthday’s tomorrow? And here it is such a nice evening.”
I pulled off at a gas station where I picked up a box of pink Little Debbie snack cakes and a six-pack of Anchor Steam. When I brought them back to the car, she looked touched about the cakes.
“You got these for my birthday?” she asked nearly bowled over. In her worn work shoes and her unruly blonde hair curling out of the clip she’d so carefully placed that morning, I wished she’d greeted these offerings with the appropriate eye-roll for the nimcompoop who’d brought them. But instead, she expressed gratitude. I had the urge to purchase for her a diamond necklace just to measure further the innocent reaction. The little cakes made her smile, a natural beaming grin, all the way to the end of the peninsula.
I announced we’d be continuing further, across the bridge. We left the city and veered toward the Marin headlands. We parked along a wide shoulder of a curvy road. We stepped out of the car and into the tall grass of an overlook facing the city lights, brighter than the draining sunshine. A low fog crept in below us. We ate the cakes and drank and watched as a cool white wall of cotton obscured the Golden Gate’s red pylons and the twinkling cliffside of the fantasy metropolis we called home. Foghorns heaved out sighs from the water. I gave Cecile a sweatshirt from my trunk.
Our conversation shuttled from what her last year before thirty would look like to Pattie’s inability to manage an office to T.S. Eliot poems to all that which was possible nowhere else in the universe but in California U.S.A. We didn’t stop talking, tilting closer, until two in the morning when she nodded off against my shoulder, her hair falling across my arm. To myself, I declared us a pair of star-crossed high school sweethearts too delicate to make a move. The foghorn bellowed two-notes back in a dirge to lost causes the world over.
We recrossed the bridge, nearly vacant at that hour. At the door to her apartment, I remembered to wish her a truly happy birthday.
“This,” I instructed myself, “this you should keep.” I coasted home on a westbound street, having safely returned Cecile. The fog lifted. The lights down Geary and an opening trapdoor on a life staged for diminished expectations were then, only for this transient moment, timed in my favor.
At the office the next morning, the magnetic pull had already begun to grow within the cables connecting us. The memory of the sea, air and night made it actual. Endless ribbons of virtual dialogue unfolded from there.
natm: how are you feeling?
cecilero: have you finished the boilerplate yet?
natm: are you changing the subject?
cecilero: there is a thing you want to talk about?
cecilero: it is fine, it is busy, crazzy
natm: it’s spelled “crazzier”
cecilero: if you say so
The Internet charged ahead. Forty-five million people saw their hard drives hollowed-out by an e-mail bug named “I Love You.” The cultural alarm bells said the prosperity couldn’t last. The frenzy in our office was either jubilance or a death-rattle panic; it was hard to tell which one to pitch to journalists. We went with a story of two people getting married as their avatars in the fantasy realm of one of our client’s massively multiplayer online games. The press adored the angle. We had articles placed in magazines all over the country, sandwiched between dozens of pages of more ads than the publication’s spine could handle. Cecile and I celebrated with the office over neon-colored cocktail shooters and catered chicken satay while we took turns wiping out over the half-pipe of the new skateboarding game on a beta PlayStation 2.
Pattie and three colleagues in Kate Spade bags wished us a good weekend. From there, another night freed itself of routine and probability. This one would be less harmless.
Again in my car, we zipped headlong away from the office and to the Pacific, assuming the right magic must be there. This time we tried farther down along the coast. She wanted to know where I was going with this. I hadn’t the foggiest.
Inside a state-run beach, we faced each other like we’d just hiked from opposite directions and met on this patch of sand. I pretended I had something I meant to say, but that had slipped my mind. She pretended she couldn’t hear me over the waves. Visibility toward the horizon remained for mere minutes.
I kissed her after a lifetime of hesitation. When the wind picked up we scrambled to the car holding hands, where we pulled in closer. I tucked her hair back over her ears. In the dark, we realized the parking gate at the entrance had closed. We couldn’t leave now. We owned the place.
I waited weeks for a reminder that I had to put a stop to this. I was the other guy. I didn’t even know her middle name and, if I did, wouldn’t know what it stood for. This fling would run its course and I would be flung. You can’t keep this up, friends said.
But during the day, meetings or phone calls incessantly preempted discussion. When Cecile and I could, we skittered through it together. I hoped the pheromones wouldn’t melt the office router cables.
natm: are you still there
cecilero: on the newsweek call
natm: what are you doing after work
cecilero: mostly nothing
natm: do you want to meet me at the outside smoking bench?
Pattier: nat get me data on the xnjs results for sony asap
natm: i need just a minute alone with u
natm: Sorry, Pattie, that was meant for someone else. What results exactly?
Summer arrived early. Pattie announced that two clients were cutting P.R. budgets. She used the word “sunsetting.” There was no reason to worry. The industry was merely shifting gears, she claimed. For real growth, pruning and weed-pulling was needed. The metaphors continued to be mixed.
natm: maybe you and i could sunset
cecilero: are you trying to hit on me?
natm: how could i say it in french?
cecilero: do not try
natm: adieu soleil
cecilero: maybe we can communicate in small faces 😉
cecilero: @~ ~ ~ \**/~ ~ [email protected]
natm: what does that one mean?
cecilero: i made it up, it is something new and enormous
Cecile couldn’t sleep at night. I was losing weight. We both ate only cheddar popcorn 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.
Cecile 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’d need to hand in my two weeks notice to Pattie. It was the first step.
The PowerPoint slides started to pulsate by 9:30. I took a break to draft a resignation letter and a long e-mail to Cecile, where I got stuck on the last word explaining the bad decision of clamping the rest of her life into a marriage. Just the right word, or le mot juste, would allow her to see it. I switched back to the resignation letter instead, which danced merrily out of my fingertips and into the Word document I printed out on company letterhead and left the office with.
On a cold summer night after a colder summer day, I took the highway loops home at 90 miles an hour. I could feel the decomposition of the highways. I went home alone out of the flat, sandy ground of the Silicon Valley. The Oracle headquarters gleamed on my right as a fortress of mirrors with no apparent door or windows. In the dusk, I imagined foundations tipping into sinkholes and lagoons drying up. I saw the airport vanish and wires strung along the highway snap away from the timber of telephone poles. Concrete crumbled under my tires and pink stucco houses blew off the ridge like sand castles. Soon my tin car would fall away by part, until I was gently skidding along the dust of an untouched peninsula. I was four hundred thousand years old, intruding on barren soil and moving with fossils that never had to question their motives or the substance of things they couldn’t touch.
natm: this is the last time I’ll see you
cecilero: don’t like the sound of it
cecilero: yes it is
natm: we’ll meet at the hotel?
cecilero: room 219
cecilero: and there is no laughing around here anymore
natm: no most certainly not
We had one night before she would leave for France for a month. For the evening and through to the next sunny morning, this subject never came up. We had no words left for it.
It was a June wedding. Cecile would match the flowers in her bouquet to the flowers in the aisles. I’d entered her life too late into the preparations. Pulling back at this moment might be disastrous for the two of us and our long-term prospects. She had to get married first for us to ever work. It sounded like a justification only when explained to perplexed outsiders.
In the office, colleagues offered misty-eyed congratulations the day before she left. “It’s like a fairy tale,” Pattie stated. I signed my name on the greeting and registry gift card that had been passed around among us as a token of our deeply joyous best wishes.
Some things just weren’t possible. The objection to the wedding, where we raced out of the back of the church tossing her white veil onto the congregation aghast, never happened.
I would give up this story. I’d start with the job.
natm: i’m quitting for real this time
Cecilero is offline
It would be the beginning of slow year of excruciating patience realizing, as we both did once she returned to this savage country, that from here and despite ourselves, we would last.