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You Make Me Feel Like a . . . : Virtual Woman : He went where no man should have gone--the women’s on-line network. And he fit right in.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The record is quite clear: I’m male. And a straight male at that.

But the record is limited, for life as I’ve known it lo these many years now ends at my modem. Once I punch up my on-line service and beam myself into cyberspace, everything changes--in addition to the recognizably male identity I use to communicate with people I know, I have another persona.

I’m a woman. Well, a virtual woman.

Women of America Online, I hear your hearts pounding as I type these words. You worry that you spilled secrets into my not-truly-pierced ears. Or--worse--that I used my skills as a professional writer to bring you to a bliss now dirtied by the possibility that your electronic ravisher wasn’t really wearing just bikinis and Escape.

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What can I say?

Well, first, that I meant no harm. That I chose a name that might have made you suspicious. That your secrets will die with me. That deception isn’t a charge you can credibly level against anyone on a network where almost every woman says she’s a 36C and no man admits to tipping the scales at 200. And, most of all, this: The devil made me do it.

You know who I mean: Men.

*

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When I originally signed on to AOL, I had no intention of developing multiple personalities. But the first level of “chat rooms” bored me silly. All I saw in the AOL “lobby” and the “public rooms” were those cute punctuations that only an on-line addict could call communication--like LOLA to signify a warm greeting and LOL (laughing out loud) to acknowledge the most modest expression of wit--and typed dialogue that made ham radio compelling in comparison.

I pressed on to the next level of on-line conversation pits, the “member rooms.” These, at least, had alluring names: “Le Chateau Dungeon,” “M 4 M, Yes Sir” and “Married and Restless.” I anticipated these rooms would be musky with desire. And I was ready for that, for what is journalism if not a form of seduction?

But even this veteran writer was shocked by what goes on in the AOL member rooms. The women, in the main, come to talk; the men, in the main, seem far more purposeful. The result is a mating dance so crude it’s hard to believe the practitioners are grown-ups--the cyber prom kings claim their queens, drag them off to private rooms and achieve what passes here for bliss.

(And they call this an advance over phone sex?)

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In real life, I’m married to a woman who’s smart and funny and easy on the eyes. I have a network of bright, amusing and bodacious female friends, and, if I were a slime ball, I could surely convert one of them into a lover. I have, therefore, no reason to seek cybersex--this is one man who went on-line to meet sharp-tongued, quick-thinking, maladjusted smart asses like himself.

Well, I tried the male-oriented member rooms. They were--what a surprise!--for gays. And the gents I met there weren’t terribly interested in my mind.

So I moved right on to the rooms for women. But a man connecting with a woman in “Women 4 Women” is as unlikely as Madonna bedding down with Newt Gingrich. I’d wander in as my male self, and everybody would clam up. Or point cyber fingers at me, as if I were a dog who’d just mussed the rug. And, reeling with rejection, I would flee to the safety of the lobby and try, once again, to LOL with LOLA.

*

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That’s when I decided to become “MsTerious.” (Footnote: This isn’t the name I used. I’ve disguised all the AOL names I cite here.)

Compared to many of the “screen profiles” I’ve read, I created a description for MsTerious that was extremely ethical. My aim was to suggest near-total unavailability, not intriguing intimacy.

In her profile, MsTerious alluded to a free-ranging imagination, but she emphasized that she was completely devoted to her career and traveled frequently for her company; she made it quite clear that on-line was a place for her to vent at the end of her long workday and that there was no way she’d let an on-line relationship turn into a real one.

There were only two pieces of information MsTerious didn’t offer: her measurements and her sexual preference. I just couldn’t see myself typing 34-24-34. And, rube that I was, I assumed MsTerious was as straight as a string.

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When I first logged on as MsTerious, women asked me questions that, in previous visits, had been asked of other new women: “What size pantyhose do you wear?” and “What’s a French manicure?”

Once I provided the answers--and threw in a quick put-down of men who log on using women’s names--I was handed a cup of cyber coffee and welcomed in.

Long ago, a wise guy friend paid me what I thought then (and think now) was a compliment: “You couldn’t be gay, Jesse--but you could be a woman.” You would never have agreed if you could have seen me at the start of my first session as MsTerious. I sat, hunched over the keyboard, sweat glistening on my brow as I struggled to write from the feminine side of my soul. It took me a solid half hour to realize that I couldn’t produce an unnatural personality on cue. I would have to be myself as MsTerious and just wing it.

I took a breath. I checked out the profiles of the women in the room I was visiting. “I think, therefore I’m one up on a man,” one had written. “The sexiest distance between two points is a curve,” another opined. “The Eskimos had 52 names for snow because it was important to them; there ought to be as many for love,” a third offered. Reading those, I began to feel I was in the right place, and I joined the conversation.

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Minutes later, I had one of the most powerful revelations of my life. I didn’t need to do anything special to become a believable woman, I just had to be intelligent and open and attentive and empathetic--gender differences really didn’t matter. So I relaxed. Asked questions. Offered advice. And, very quickly, was having the chats--about books and relationships, music and travel--that I couldn’t find anywhere else on-line.

*

But what about the sex, you ask?

Men, of course, were only too eager to imagine they were wooing MsTerious in some European hotel room. Try as I might, I couldn’t be attentive and open to those requests; behind the come-ons, I perceived the silhouette of dominance.

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It was very different, though, when a woman approached me for cybersex. Her come-on was aggressive, but I could feel some humanity--and even the faint suggestion of a smile--behind it. And so, improvising at every step, I gave her what she wanted.

Unless, of course, “she” was a “he,” and we were, in our posing, the punch lines of our own jokes.

I’d have to be a cyber Moliere to graph that set of crossed wires--and for now, that’s too much effort. I just came to play. And play I did.

Like the night I ramped into a room called “Why AOL Women Lie.” We had a fine time swapping war stories, and I formed a gang of two with a woman I’ll call Jane. Then a guy I’ll call BigStick entered the room. And Jane and I attacked.

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“Why introduce yourself with that name?” I asked.

“It’s demeaning to women,” Jane typed.

“It’s just a code for when I’m cruising rooms like this,” BigStick replied. “My luck is better with this name.”

“In my experience,” I said loftily, “you get lucky more often with candles and poetry.”

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We hammered away at BigStick until he was limp. Then we got another idea. At Jane’s urging, I told him I felt badly about the attack, that I’d come to like him, and that I wanted him to join me in a private room so we could do that funky cyber thing.

BigStick smelled a con, but he was, after all, a man--and he fell for it.

“Lighting candles,” he announced, when he and I were alone. “Grabbing a well-worn copy of 500 limericks for all occasions.”

Suddenly another name appeared on the screen: Jane.

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“You slut!” she typed with blinding speed. “Harlot! Hussy!”

“This isn’t how it looks, Jane,” I typed. “BigStick is reading his poetry to me.”

“Boy, did I see this coming a mile off,” BigStick moaned.

“Please, Jane, leave,” I said. “This is my private time.”

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“She’s mine, BigStick,” Jane said. “And I need to know what she said to you.”

“When does one of you pull out the gun and shoot the other?” BigStick asked.

“We were lovers,” I explained. “But Jane has been drinking and drugging all summer, so I moved out.”

“Right, and Jane is the only donor for bone marrow to Lisa Marie Presley.”

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Somewhere in Ohio, BigStick was learning to set aside lust and just enjoy the moment. In Maryland, Jane was signaling more friends to join the madness. And in New York, I was laughing so hard I could scarcely type.

So hard I was actually weeping.

So hard I almost wet my . . . uh . . . boxers.


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