Part ten of ‘The man who dated his RL boss (without her knowing it).’ The story will be taking a break tomorrow but will return on Monday.
The days passed and Cando’s evening meetings with Curiosity became an established daily occurrence. They grew closer.
After a week, she asked him if he’d like to attend an official function with her, an exhibition by one of SL-INK’s top photographers opening in one of Second Life’s most fashionable galleries. It was the first time she had ‘shown’ him in public and Cando saw more viewer cross-hairs alight on his head over the course of that evening than he did on some of the photographs on display.
No-one said a word to him. When he turned up by her side a few days later for the launch of a new mesh body by a high profile creator, however, the messages started to pop up on his screen. They were all very polite and proper welcomes, with vague, fish-hook pleasantries expressed on how beautiful Curiosity was looking, and Cando sent back cheerful replies entirely lacking in any information whatsoever.
When he appeared with her a third time one week later for the tenth rezzday party of Curiosity’s chief Copy Editor, the questions were much more direct. “I never thought I’d see the day that Curiosity had a boyfriend,” someone wrote. “Congratulations on cracking the Ice Maiden,” someone else commented. Cando realised he was in particularly treacherous territory now and spent so much time composing his replies that he barely noticed any of the official proceedings going on around him. To the former, he replied, “Don’t believe everything you see,” and to the latter he fired back, “And I managed it without even saying a word to you.” Later, in her garden, he showed her all these interactions, and she laughed and told him he’d done well.
“Would you like to be able to tell them you’re my boyfriend?” she asked him.
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” he replied glibly, “seeing as how you don’t do relationships in SL.”
“I think we both know this is a relationship,” she told him. “We can carry on pretending it isn’t if you like, but perhaps it’s time we each of us gave the other permission to call a spade a spade.”
“What changed your mind about it?” he asked her.
Meanwhile, in real life, work continued as normal. The IPSIS crisis over, Nick and Vicky went back to work on the legacy audit. They had daily meetings that lasted anything between five minutes and an hour. The sheer ordinariness of it all came close at times to blowing Nick’s mind. I am having sex with you, he would say in his head during their conversations, and you have no idea. I know things about you that you’ve never said aloud to anyone. I know that you orgasmed at precisely 10:37pm last night, and I know what you were thinking about when you did so. There were times when he actually started to disbelieve that Vicky Kent and Curiosity Redgrave could really be the same person, and he set up little experiments to provoke real life reactions from her that he could observe. Using an email scheduling tool he timed messages to her to coincide with their meetings; when each one arrived he heard her phone do its buzz-buzz to announce its arrival and watched her eyes dip to the screen. Just wanted to let you know how much I loved last night. He saw the faintest of smiles crease the corners of her mouth. I can’t wait to be inside you again. She looked away momentarily and cleared her throat. Whatever you’re doing right now, think of me and lick your lips. She paused mid sentence and the tip of her tongue appeared, innocently, as though to make it easier to articulate her next syllable. And then she went bright red.
Not too many timed messages, though; Nick had now thought through his deception far enough to know that if his RL identity ever did get revealed to Vicky it would need to be credible to her that he hadn’t known who he was dating. Messages she’d received in his presence when she hadn’t seen him send anything would look highly suspicious in retrospect, so he made sure that he sent her messages at other times also, and that anything he did time to coincide with them being together was sent only a couple of minutes after the scheduled start of their meeting: a two, three or even five minute delay between the sending and the receiving of an email was plausible, he reasoned.
Nick found himself doing an awful lot of reasoning.
He reasoned that any question Curiosity asked him about his RL he should either outright refuse to answer – as was his right in SL – or answer as truthfully as possible. Whilst a certain degree of embellishment and exaggeration was to some extent a natural part of many conversations in the metaverse about real life, outright lies might seem in retrospect a deliberate attempt at avoiding the disclosure of information that might hint at who he was. In any genuinely innocent and coincidental meeting, there would be no reason to hide the fact that he did a specific job or lived in a particular locality. In the end, he decided he would reveal no more than the approximate geographical region he lived in and would tell her he was uncomfortable with naming the city there and then. She would understand that.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Nick was at some level planning to get found out, a suggestion that he vigorously denies each time I put it to him. He assures me that all of these precautions were in case he got found out, even though many of them actually made this possibility a great deal more likely. Myself, I think that Nick behaved in this way because mimicking the behaviour of a completely innocent and coincidental encounter – this is effectively what he was doing – enabled him to believe in some way that this was actually what had happened. Any small deviation from this pattern of behaviour made it less possible for him to convince himself that he was behaving honourably. Nick reasoned most frequently of all that he was not harming Vicky through his behaviour. Harm could only occur, he told himself, if he abused the trust that she had placed in him. So long as he behaved towards Curiosity exactly as he believed he would have behaved had he not known who he was talking to, then her own belief about what was going on was essentially the truth. Whilst Vicky might not have liked the fact that in actuality the person she was sharing her intimate fantasies with was an introvert co-worker she line-managed, she knew the deal with Second Life: the disclosure of such details to an anonymous person could be a communication with absolutely anyone. Those were the risks that one knowingly took.
Of course there were the moments where he found himself doubting all of this; in those moments his anxiety over what he was doing could mount to a level bordering on a full-blown panic attack and he had to step away from his computer and gasp air outside. He had never before in his life done anything quite so invasive to another person and the deeper their relationship became the more completely he knew he was penetrating her psyche. But rather than worsening, these moments actually became fewer and less often as the days went by. This was partly because the narrative he created for himself about what he was doing was very successful, but it was also something a great deal more simple than that.
Nick was falling in love.
In some respects it happened slowly. Nick found himself more and more looking forward to feeling the way he felt when he was with Curiosity as Cando. More than anything else, this was a feeling of peacefulness and calm that he didn’t think he had ever felt to this extent before. When he was with Cando, everything just… flowed. He felt less self-conscious. He felt happy. He didn’t have to struggle to think of what to say. That last thing in particular he found particularly perplexing. Nick had never found himself in a social situation where words came as though by themselves; whilst an outward appearance of confidence came more easily to him in SL than it did in RL, this was a whole new level of calm. Because this was genuinely such a novelty, he found himself questioning who it was who was saying his words. Am I a different person when I am logged on as Cando? he wondered. Are we not actually one and the same being at all? He had had partners in SL before and at the time one or two of those had felt like something special, but those things felt like schoolboy crushes compared to how he felt about Curiosity. Perhaps the thing that was different, he told himself, was that he knew this person in real life also. Even though he could say nothing to Vicky about who he was, he felt a connection to her that was different from any he felt to any other colleague or friend. At the start, it was just that he noticed more her movement; as the weeks passed, however, he became much more attuned to the more subtle detail, like how her eyes looked when she became tired or how her jaw muscles tightened that little bit when she’d been challenged by someone and was fighting to conceal her frustration or anxiety.
He knew he would never be with Vicky in real life and he knew that the relationship would probably be over within six months – as was the way with so many SL partnerships – but seeing her in the flesh each day still gave what happened in the evenings that extra layer of meaning.
But he knew he would never be with her in real life. Despite all his preparation for how he would answer any questions that came up, Curiosity never once asked him for a single detail about his RL. She simply wasn’t interested.
Want to read another story by me set in SL? I’ve also serialised ‘The man who had an affair with his wife’ – the first part is here (scroll down past the text on NaNoWriMo to get to it).