Jean was eighty and unhappy. We were friends. I was setting up her clunky computer to play online chess. Her husband had died. Her daughter had died, too. Her condo spread out on all sides. Abstract-expressionist paintings hung standoffish on her walls. Huge-ass windows made a grand view of whatever.
Jean and I had met a few years before, playing chess in the social room of Jean's apartment building. Jean lived in The Philadelphian, a bold, zig-zaggy high-rise with a pool sticking out of its side. There was a bank inside it, and a hairdresser, and a travel agency, a diner, a mini supermarket, many carpeted hallways, a couple distinguished doormen, and three sets of gold elevators. My grandmother lived there too, in a smaller apartment facing the museum. Jean and my grandmother were not friends. Every week I saw my grandmother for dinner, but first I secretly saw Jean. It was a new kind of betrayal. I didn't think of it as a betrayal. It was a grey zone between known things. It was abstract and vaguely exciting. I had never had a friend this old before. It made me feel I was living a full life.
Jean and I sat on office chairs. It was stubborn to still have a computer like this one. Wires tangled wildly under the desk. Even in the computer room there were paintings and tapestries. Little glass animals lined the windowsill in a somber parade. Jean lived elegantly.
Jean gave the computer a look. It was heavy and leaning on its stand. She shook the mouse to wake it. She acted like at any moment it might blow up. She double-clicked. Immediately, tons of ad windows opened in her browser. I hadn’t seen AOL in years. It looked really shitty. Like the internet, but worse. Little cartoon women danced and we x-ed them out.
This was in a building full of people who used to be young. It had a forgotten-about, glamorous feel. The lobby was regal and shiny with pianos. It wasn’t a hospital or anything. There weren’t rules for who could live there, but most residents seemed at the tail end of a vibrant and cultured life. They looked like New Yorker cartoons. They had grown into the weirdness of their faces. They’d made the same expression so many times, it was now patented over their features.
“First name,” I said and she typed. She refused to use the tab key. She relied solely upon the mouse, clicking from one cell to the next. It was tedious. She wrote her last name, her email. They wanted to give her a ‘ymail’ account. ‘Ymail’ sounded like a scheme. Jean just wanted to play chess with her friend in Florida. Every time I thought ‘Florida,’ a little nauseous heat wave went through me.
The first online chess site was ok. Jean was confused. “These are different rooms,” I said. “Like you know about chat rooms?”
“Let’s click this and play Yeah_Douglas.” There was Buttugly783. Mr.Buzzcut. ExtremeMachine. Hippy_Nights. Jean’s name was Jean_Adler. She didn’t see a point in obscuring it.
There is a flirtation in friendships between the unevenly aged. It feels like conversing with your own future or past. Old friends and young friends, they don’t try to compete with you. They look to you amused. They stray from their family, briefly to a stranger.
Yeah_Douglas played aggressively and to loud sound effects. “Jeez, why’s he making so much noise?” Jean asked, flustered. Every time she lost a piece, a string of morbid medieval notes vibrated from the speakers.
“That’s just the computer. Look. I can mute it.”
Yeah_Douglas went on a rampage with his bishop. I watched Jean’s time dwindle. I hadn’t told her there was a limit.
I was dressed right for dinner, because my grandmother was elegant too. She wanted me to match my colors so as to attract a man. She said I dressed like a homeless person and only attracted boys. I loved my grandmother way more than Jean, but I can never refuse a friend. I find time to keep it going.
I took Jean to another site meant for long-term games, correspondence chess. The site started up again with its forms. “First name,” I said like an employee of someplace. I was late for dinner with my grandmother, but Jean’s daughter had died recently.
“Do you still talk to Peter?” she asked.
Peter was embarrassingly tall. I hadn’t seen him since we visited Jean in the hospital. I’d go out with him for some time and then we’d break it off and I’d form a life somewhere with new people, and he’d come check it out and then linger.
“Not really,” I told Jean. Jean looked annoyed. She wanted me to marry Peter or else hand him over to her granddaughter. But after I’ve been with a boy, I’ve stored my dreams inside him. I can’t just give him up.
A few summers ago, Peter and I crashed my grandmother’s apartment while she was somewhere better. We’d lounge on the balcony, talking until scolded from another balcony. “Do you know what time it is!” a frazzled voice would call, from above. The whole front of the building was balconies. The balconies were like Hollywood Squares. You couldn’t see the board, and no one was playing. Peter and I had fun in this building. Kissing on the piano bench, sashaying across the lobby in sunglasses. It was weirdly easy to feel sexy among the elderly.
Last name, email. Birth date, phone number. The website wanted a security question. What is your favorite book? What was your first pet? The website didn’t really want to know. It wasn’t curious at all. It just assumed we would forget the password. And why shouldn’t we? Jean was getting frustrated. A pop-up window for wrinkle cream flashed across the screen. “The internet is terrible!” she said.
Together we answered the security questions and she wrote them down. For her password she wrote her daughter’s name. “I’m just so used to it,” she said.
Spending time with the survived always makes me feel privileged, that I’m being watched. That the dead relatives of the survived are swarming about us when I’m talking to those they love. Visiting in their wispy way. They want to see through my eyes just to get a look.
Jean retyped the password where they asked. Then, there was that familiar thing where the website displays a scribbly word for you to decode.
“Why! Why!” said Jean. “Why do they always want this!”
“To make sure we aren’t a computer!”
“Why would a computer be using a computer!”
It was PVPTTLMN, but all slanting and puffed. “I think that’s ‘LO’,” she said, “not ‘P’.”
“That’s ‘P’,” I said, “look.”
I couldn’t convince her. Whatever. “Everything always works with these anyways,” I said. She insisted we click to get another. “It’s ‘P’,” I said.
“It’s nothing!” She said, “It’s not clear. It’s all wrong.”
She clicked for another.
This one was harder. It involved swirls. WHAT? She didn’t even try. She clicked emphatically for another, but it was worse.
I could picture my grandmother giving a mean eye to the clock. It wasn’t fair to be so focused on Jean. Jean had her own granddaughter, after all. The bridge ladies all hated Jean, because she’d stolen someone’s husband. My grandmother was a bridge lady, but we did not discuss Jean. It wasn’t really worth it to steal a husband at their age. Jean’s boyfriend would come over and watch T.V. on her couch, hooked up to air.
The new word was smashed. “Completely illegible,” Jean said. She gave a defiant click but the next one was phallic. “Oh boy,” she said and I laughed.
Jean clicked once again. This one was quilted, there were zags and stitches. If I narrowed my eyes it pulsated. There was one like a maze that I thought was pretty. Then a reflective one, like a beam of light within the computer. The internet was always doing this. Was it malfunctioning or was it someone? Half-human/ half-machine, it bought your life, delivering only a mess of color and text. Really, I’d wasted years on these things. A blinking cursor, a forwarding link, simulated movement. A scroll bar, a history of posts. All these tricks made you feel like you were moving, when really you were sitting still for years, meandering on a big irrelevant board. Jean sighed and looked old. I hadn’t seen her in months. She’d broken some bones and then healed back to normal, then her daughter had died and she’d been dealing with that ever since.
The next was a hollow shape, flanked with two dark flairs. A little scribble in the hollow made a face. “Jean! It looks like you!” Jean squinted her eyes and screwed her face in distaste. She looked at the screen and not at me.
“We’re done here,” she said. She said, “Who can stand a computer so long?” I looked at the scribble on the screen. It had one eyebrow like hers, and a dot where the other would be.
I stood and grabbed the thing I have instead of a purse. After an ambiguous goodbye, I walked out her front door in a daze down the hallway. It was startling to be moving again. I took the elevator instead of the stairs. In that building, Peter and I always flew down the emergency stairs in a bragging display of young legs. The elevator opened into the lobby, full of ghosts and dead grandeur as I walked to my grandmother’s wing.
I always feel dissatisfied and lucky around the survived. Like there are other people that would rather be there. That when I’m with someone, I’m just near them. That the dead would be doing a better job.