At this point I have told you half my story. Before I start the second half, I’m going to take a little break from personal narrative, to participate in a blog challenge and see whether I can write something every day for a week. So the next few posts are intentionally a little different, and off the track.
Those who have not experienced life in a virtual world might suppose that it is just a game, a make-believe world that is all sunshine and happiness. If you can make the world to be anything you want, why not make it unreal? Why not simply leave out anything that is unpleasant? The perfect day I described in my last post was a beautiful, romantic, fantasy day. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if life was an unending succession of one such day after another–nothing but relaxing on the beach, shopping, dancing, making love?
I suppose that one could approximate such perennial bliss by simply ignoring the reality of one another’s lives. But that was not the choice that Jonah and I made. We related to one another as real people in a fantasy world. The visual setting might have been imaginary, but I never thought of Jonah as anything other than the real, flesh and blood man behind the avatar.
Although we did not meet in RL, Jonah and I shared much of our lives with each other. I knew what he did for a living, more or less where he lived, what his home was like, his dog’s name and breed, the make and model of his car and computer, what he did with his days, his childhood dreams, his career aspirations, his birthday. In turn, he knew similar things about me. We spoke on the phone, and chatted about everything, SL and RL.
A few months into our relationship, reality intruded with a rude slap. Uncharacteristically, Jonah was offline for several days, with no word. When he reappeared finally, a shaken Jonah told me that he’d had a medical issue, and surgery was scheduled. I learned then that Jonah’s style was to withdraw when he was worried about something. I let him have his space, and waited and worried alone. I sent him daily messages of support and reassurance. He came through the surgery successfully, and after a period of recovery, things between us slowly got back to normal. But this frightening dose of reality colored our world. Not in a bad way. It made it deeper, less perfect perhaps, but more authentic.
Our fantasy was sometimes interrupted in other ways. Jonah’s job sometimes became very demanding. I missed him terribly when we couldn’t be together. I would log on and wait, just in case. If he did find a moment to log on, I didn’t want to miss that chance to see him. And of course, as with any couple, there were arguments, jealousies, and unintended hurts; these we typically faced, talked through, and made up from, each one painting our relationship with more of the colors of reality.
Other separations were more difficult. I never doubted that Jonah loved me, but he had a serious case of wanderlust. There were times when he would get restless and visit the red light districts of Second Life. When I found out about it, I was shocked, and it took a while for my self-confidence to recover. As time went on, and I began to understand that such behavior was routine, and did not really affect his feelings for me, I accepted it grudgingly–but the happy fantasy world in which I’d been living lost just a bit of its magical shine.
One day, Jonah came to me, agitated, with the news that due to a situation in his first life, he would have to leave Second Life for a period of time, and would in fact be incommunicado. He promised he would return, and pleaded with me to wait for him. After a tearful goodbye, I stood, alone, feeling as if a piece of my heart had been ripped out. But fidelity is one thing I do very, very well. I would wait for this man for as long as it took. I knew that although he would not be able to communicate with me, or to log into SL, he might be able to see a web page that would show him my current location in SL. Knowing that he might be watching me, I determined to reassure him that all was well. So, I began a life of solitude and seclusion. I logged in to SL at regular times, and almost never left our land, to which only he and I had access. That way, if he did look in, he would see that I was not keeping company with anyone else. Even though I knew there could be no response, I sent encouraging emails reassuring him that I was waiting, faithful, still his.
The days stretched into weeks. And still I waited. My friends were puzzled, wondering why I would restrict myself from enjoying all the delights of Second Life. For heaven’s sake, they said, go out–enjoy yourself. He’s not here, so why not? But that is not the person I wanted to be. I choose to be a faithful person, a trustworthy person. I honored my love. Because I wouldn’t go anywhere, what friends I’d had gradually drifted away. I waited steadfastly, hoping for word from Jonah. Nothing came. Still I waited. Long days of solitude, no conversation, no connection, except to my memories of Jonah, and the wonderful life we shared. It meant that much to me. I was willing to wait.
It was nine weeks before I finally heard from him. It was probably the most difficult nine weeks of my life. Not difficult because I was tempted to stray; I was never tempted, not for a moment. And not difficult because I was alone; knowing that my seclusion was a gift to Jonah, the thing he would need from me, made it easy for me to bear. No, the difficulty was fighting the loss of hope. After so long, I began to fear that he would never return. That my faithfulness was in vain. That perhaps his feelings for me had been just a fantasy all along.
Bliss was mine again when Jonah returned after his long absence; we embraced our old life of fun, creativity, romance and sex. But that nine weeks had changed me. I found myself less relaxed about our relationship, and more clingy. Now I was the one who needed reassurance. He’d been gone so long, I needed to hold on tight to make sure he was really there. In retrospect, I know that was a mistake; but I really couldn’t help it.
A few weeks after his return, I became aware that even though things between us seemed fantastic, Jonah was visiting the red light districts again. He would log on late at night, when he knew I would not be online, for quick encounters with strangers. I knew about it, but I never said anything. We fought about whether I wanted too much from him. A few weeks later, I became aware that he was seeing someone, and concealing it from me; not the anonymous encounters of the red light district, but something that seemed more like a relationship. He had various excuses for the time he spent with this other woman: she was a friend, she was troubled and he was comforting her, or he was helping her with some technical problem. I didn’t press him on it. Even though he could not be faithful, I could; I continued to strive to be the person I wanted to be, embracing my promise of fidelity.
After a time, things between him and the other woman ended, and we enjoyed several weeks of happiness together. But as time went along, there were more absences from SL; and when he was in SL, more clandestine affairs. I always waited them out, true to my promises. And he always came home eventually. When he did, there were still fun days; romantic, moonlit nights; steamy sex; and the ease of a comfortable space between two people who know one another very, very well.
Our relationship lasted two and a half years. In Second Life time, that equated to decades. I remained true to him that entire time. But finally, a day came when the demands of his work and personal life were such that he had to say farewell to Second Life forever. And I closed the book on one of the most remarkable chapters of my life.
Only to open the next one.
Next: Don’t cry »
For the sake of readers who have trouble imagining a Second Life relationship, let me describe one day in ours.
In RL, the sun crept through my bedroom window early, splashing across my bed and nudging me awake. As I opened my eyes, memory of the night before brought a smile. Rolling out of bed, I crossed the room to the computer screen, and saw my avatar still nestled in Jonah’s arms, in our bed in the house on the beach. I heard the sound of gentle surf lapping on the sand in that virtual world, and the gauzy white curtains swayed as a soft ocean breeze stole through the open windows. It was easy to imagine the balmy sea air caressing my skin, feel the delicious languour of sleeping in a lover’s arms.
Jonah, who was one time zone behind me, had not yet stirred in RL, so I went to shower and dress. A few minutes later I returned and sat down at the computer with breakfast. Good morning, baby, I typed, leaving the message on the screen so that when he woke up he would know that I, too, had risen. I smiled when the response popped right up. Hi Precious, I’m awake, he wrote, and drew me into a warm embrace and a sleepy morning kiss. We stayed pleasantly entangled in bed for a few minutes, talking about the day ahead. We both worked from home, which allowed us to steal moments together during the workday. I need to hit the gym, and then run to a client meeting, he said, but then I’ll come back, and we can be together while we work, okay, lover?
That sounds perfect, baby, I said. I have a lot to do this morning, but I’ll be right here. I kissed him tenderly, then watched his avatar vanish as he logged off. Rising from the bed, I dressed in a bikini, pulled a diaphanous sarong over it, and wandered downstairs and out onto the beach. As I finished my breakfast in RL, where I was clad less alluringly in t-shirt and jeans, in SL I stood in my Bali bikini on the virtual beach, listening for a few minutes to the surf and the cries of seagulls, watching the sun rise and fill the sky with pink and gold. Then I turned my attention to my workday, with the beach in the background on my computer.
Shortly before noon, a soft chime alerted me to Jonah’s return. My heart leapt with joy, and I left my email for a moment, bringing the Second Life screen to the front to see my incredibly handsome man walking across the beach toward me. I couldn’t get you out of my mind all morning, he chuckled. Mmmm, you look good, baby. He kissed me passionately, and wasted little time before leading me to a private nook and treating us to a little quickie nooner. Then we nestled on a chaise lounge on the veranda, cuddling in SL, while in RL we each returned to our work, popping in to SL from time to time to steal a quick hello.
At the end of the workday, I came back to SL to find Jonah building. He was putting an addition on one end of the house where he’d be able to dock a sailboat. I stood in the shade under nearby palm trees, watching. Jonah was an incredible builder. When I build, I have to plan everything out with sketches and measurements. He had an uncanny ability to just do it by eye, and the results were always ten times better than mine or nearly anyone else’s. We chatted as I watched teak and bamboo turn into a veranda adjoining a small dock. When it was ready, he rezzed his sailboat at the end of the dock, where it was close to the house, but easy to pilot out onto the open water. I could hear the sound of the water lapping against the hull of the boat, see the ocean breeze nudging the lush tropical grasses sheltering the walkway. Maybe it was just a boat dock, but it was so beautifully designed, so evocative, my heart swelled with appreciation for his gifts, his creativity, his desire to make a good life for us to share. To celebrate the completion of the dock, we hopped on to the sailboat, and sailed around the tropical islands where we lived. We laughed and joked as we cruised the virtual sea, then pulled back into our lovely dock.
I have to run and get dinner, he typed. But will you meet me a little later? I smiled. Of course, lover, I replied. I have to run some errands and do a few things here, but I should be back before too long. We kissed, and both logged out of the virtual world for the time being. I was intrigued. What did he have planned?
Later in the evening I logged back in to find that Jonah was online already, but not at the house. An IM from him pinged onto my screen. Hi baby, he greeted me. I’ll be there in a few minutes, just taking care of something. Get dressed up, okay? Let’s go dancing. That sounded wonderful, and I told him so. Hmm, what to wear? Paging through my ample closet, I finally decided on a slender, dark red gown by Last Call, in a softly draped silk brocade with off-the-shoulder lace neckline and sleeves. Black suede peep-toe sandals with a subtle silver trim were a good match. A sensual up-do and a single strand of pearls highlighted my bare shoulders and completed the look: softly romantic, understated, elegant. I was ready for whatever surprise Jonah had in store.
Soon he sent a teleport, and I joined him at our favorite ballroom, where he was waiting for me, looking so handsome in his classic tux. We both enjoyed dancing in SL, and occasionally went to a jazz club, Latin dancing, or kicked back at a blues joint. But tonight was for romantic elegance. Under the stars in the open air ballroom, we swayed to vintage big band tunes. His charm captivated me as his arms encircled me and drew me close for a slow dance. I was in heaven. Leaning forward, his lips nuzzled my ear, and I shivered. I want to take you somewhere more private, he whispered. Breathlessly, I nodded. Wait just a moment, he breathed, and I’ll send for you. He kissed me then vanished.
A few seconds later, he teleported me to a place I did not know. As I materialized, I looked around to see where we were. A waterfall spilled over the edge of a high cliff overlooking the ocean. We stood on a small plateau just below, where the water cascaded into a rocky pool before falling the rest of the way down the cliff. The night sky sparkled with a million stars. Jonah held out his hand with a smile. I took it, returning the smile, and let him draw me close. Soft music blended with the waterfall’s sound, and we slow danced there on the cliff’s edge, seemingly suspended in the starry sky. I saw and felt his hands caressing my back, and shivered softly, leaning into him. His hands slid down to my ass and he pulled my body against his. I yielded willingly, wrapping my arms around his neck, pressing up against him, leaning up for a kiss.
Come, Jonah said, and led me down into the pool. The virtual silk of my gown was safe, but it was as if I could feel the cool water rising up my legs as we waded in. Jonah pulled me into a passionate kiss directly under the waterfall, the spray showering around us as he lifted me to him. I saw that the cascading water hid part of the pool behind the falls. Stepping through the waterfall, we found ourselves in a very private small grotto. Jonah had prepared the place for us. We kissed, standing waist deep in the pool, peeling off our elegant clothes to savor the imagined sensation of skin upon skin. He lifted me and I wrapped my legs around his waist; he moved to the edge of the pool, so that I was sitting on a rocky ledge, dangling my legs in the water. There, we made love, long and slow, until at last we collapsed in each other’s arms, joyously exhausted.
Afterward, cradled together bathing in the secret pool, the stars sparkling through the curtain of the waterfall, we held each other, talking softly, intimately. Finally, reluctantly, we pulled on our clothes and teleported home. We said goodnight as our avatars nestled together in bed, spooning comfortably. Knowing that 1500 miles away, Jonah was doing the same, I rose from the computer, went to my RL bed, and fell asleep dreaming of one perfect day.
Next: Too Real »
That’s absurd, a friend said when I shared the news. You aren’t in love. You cannot possibly be in love. It isn’t real. It’s just the internet.
I suspect most of us who have spoken of an online relationship have encountered a cynic or two. To be fair, this friend’s cynicism was rooted in her desire to protect the integrity of her love. She’d had a beautiful romance that grew into a beautiful marriage; the kind people dream of. Having experienced such love, she did not like having an internet relationship compared to it. The idea that the internet could provide such a connection threatened to cheapen it, in her mind. Her motives were pure, even if her understanding was limited.
It’s not an easy idea to defend. Internet or not, how can you prove that you’re in love? There is no official definition of what “in love” means. Love is rarely rational, objective, or provable. It would be hard enough to “prove” that you’re in love in “real” life, let alone in a virtual context that is unfamiliar to many.
Was my love less authentic than my friend’s ideal marriage? How do you measure such a thing? All I can do is list the evidence. Whenever Jonah logged on, or when he just walked into the room, my heart would leap for joy. I was dazzled by him, and wanted nothing more than to be with him. When we were apart, I would count the minutes until we could be together. When we were together, I was filled with a euphoria such as I had never known. I thought of him constantly, all day, every day, and talked about him incessantly to my friends, trying their patience, I’m sure. It may sound like a crush, but it was more than that; a deep connection grew between us. I held in my heart his deepest thoughts and dreams, heartaches and headaches, and I trusted mine to him. I admired his gifts, and even honored the ordinary human failings and darker aspects that helped to make him who he was. I cared deeply for him, and tending to his pleasure and happiness and the health of our relationship was a privilege and a blessing. So what do you think? Was I in love?
Yes, there was more that we might have shared. I did not know the pleasure of his touch, although my imagination did a pretty good job filling in. We spent a lot of time together, and even “slept” together in SL, our avatars tucked in bed, embracing, leaving them logged in that way overnight, sometimes talking on voice until our RL bodies fell asleep, leaving the connection open, so that I could hear his breathing and gentle snoring in RL. Some aspects of everyday life were not part of our experience. As we grew closer, and eventually partnered (the SL equivalent of marriage), we built virtual homes and a virtual life together, but continued to lead separate “first” lives, 1500 miles apart. I loved gazing into his virtual blue eyes, but I did not know the mischievous sparkle of the real ones, or the warmth of his real smile. Does the absence of those things mean that love cannot be?
To those who say that our initial attraction was not “love,” later events may be more compelling. Whether it was or not, it was probably the most real feeling I have ever had.
Next: One Perfect Day »
The day that changed everything was early in the spring: a time for new life to begin.
After a month in Second Life, I felt I was getting the hang of it. I had explored many remarkable lands. I had a beautiful avatar and a sexy, fashionable wardrobe. I was becoming proficient at flirting, and attracted the attention of many men. I had bought property, my own private house on the beach, where I entertained friends. In contrast to my reserved and somewhat solitary first life, the libertine version of me was having a great time in Second Life. It was uncomplicated fun.
One day, while sunbathing on my beach, my eyes were drawn to a man looking at a nearby home. I remember thinking: wow. This guy was definitely in a different class from the casual dates I had. It wasn’t just his muscular shape. Every detail of his avatar’s appearance was carefully crafted; the best quality and design, yet relaxed and informal. His long dark hair fell casually around aquiline features, framing the bluest of eyes… oh, those eyes. They seemed to twinkle with a smile.
His name was Jonah. He noticed me too. I wish I could remember his first words to me. I’m not sure it mattered. I was so dazzled, he could have read from the phone book and I would have been enthralled. I do remember that he put me right at ease. He was friendly, flirty, fun… and oh, so sexy. We only spoke for a few minutes, but when he’d gone, I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
Before long, Jonah returned, and we became friends. When I sat relaxing on my beach, Jonah would drop by to sit and chat. He was different from any man I’d ever met, Second Life or first, and I was fascinated. He cared about the visual expression of Second Life. It mattered to him to have an avatar that was good looking, well dressed and well groomed. A proficient builder and designer, he took pleasure in his beautiful home and every detail of furnishing, landscaping and decorating it. He loved the virtual world, loved to play in it, loved to create beauty. His creativity took my breath away. He was charming, funny, affectionate and smart. I found his personality intoxicating: the soul of an artist, with a relaxed, self-confident masculinity, an appealing blend of tenderness and strength that made me go weak in the knees.
What angel sent you to me? I asked him one day. He just laughed.
I think I would have yielded to him any time he wished, but Jonah took his time, and courted me; a long seduction that gradually built desire to a fever pitch. We enjoyed sparkling evenings in a starlit ballroom, and intimate slow dancing on his veranda. There were passionate kisses in a secret cave, under a waterfall cascading into a rocky pool. We sailed across vast oceans, with the wind in our hair and the sound of the salt spray around us. We explored Second Life, and we explored each other. We cuddled on a beach blanket beside a fire, talking long into moonlit nights, growing ever closer, ever deeper. When my desire had reached such intensity that I thought I would explode, Jonah finally took me. Then I discovered this gifted man’s greatest talent. I had indulged in online sex before, but never had I experienced anyone who could do what he did. Urgent couplings gradually lengthened into an extended feast of pleasure, as we spent every available moment together. Dizzy with happiness, I realized that I was in love.
Next: Real »
I apologize for going on at such length with my backstory. But if I am going to discuss my thoughts about living and loving in Second Life, I think it is only fair to be honest about my background, so that you, the reader, can come to your own conclusions about how my experiences have shaped my opinions (and how they compare with your own). After a few more posts of this, I should be able to start writing about more current thoughts. But for now, I return to my first days in Second Life.
Although initially I thought SL was going to be a game, and that my interaction would be with a game, I soon grasped that it is not a game but a community. The virtual world and the avatars are a medium — through them, real people are connecting with other real people. In some ways, then, it is like a telephone or a chat room. One can use the telephone to communicate with sound, and one can use a chat room to communicate with text. One can do both through Second Life, but there is also a deep 3D visual element. This visual element does not consist of stock images provided by the game; no, all of it, everything you see, has been created by the users (“residents”). When you add this visual expression to words and sound, the result is an incredibly rich medium of communication.
One more factor has a profound effect on the nature of relationships in Second Life: anonymity. Unlike Facebook or other online communities where your identity is known, Second Life is almost totally anonymous. Like traditional text-based online communities, nothing about you is known, except what you choose to reveal. And most residents choose to reveal little or nothing. No one knows your name, or where you are. They do not know if the real you is young or old, male or female, bodybuilder or couch potato. Some aspects of your personality will leak through your typed words, but if you are a good actor, you can role-play an assumed persona, and use visual creativity to reinforce your character, masking your “First Life” self with a new self of your own devising.
So there I was in this virtual world. I looked fabulous, and all around me were other attractive avatars–not game characters, but the avatar presence of real people with whom I could interact. Shielded by anonymity, I could be anyone, I could do anything. What did I want? What did I wish for? What was my fantasy?
To start with, it could be nice to make some friends, I thought. And so I did. Soon, I was having a great time. It wasn’t long before a nice-looking guy flirted with me. Then another. And another. There were parties. There was slow dancing. There was kissing. It was so realistic; the butterflies in my stomach were just as real as if it had happened in First Life. And then there was sex. Oh. My. God. Without being too graphic, just let me say that sex in Second Life is awesome. I remember thinking: this is like making my own personalized interactive porn movie. And if I stay anonymous, it’s safe. No one knows who I am, and there is no possibility of physical harm. I can do anything, try everything. Yes, virtual sex in SL is deliciously erotic; after all, the biggest sex organ is still your brain, and SL stimulates the sweet spot. It is extremely fun.
In First Life, I am a very reserved person, and I take great care in making choices, in doing what is right. In Second Life, my fantasy was to become an out-and-out hedonist, to simply let go and let myself do what felt good. After all, this world was virtual, and as long as I kept my activity confined to the virtual world, it was pretty safe. So that’s what I did. For about two weeks, I immersed myself in a glorious, consequence-free world of dating, flirting and casual sex. I met a sweet boy, full of fun, and enjoyed dancing and sailing with him. I even tasted the forbidden fruits of BDSM, about which I will say more — much more — later.
Then came the day that changed my life.
Next: Falling in »
I don’t remember what I was expecting when I came to Second Life® for the first time. Or even whether I was expecting anything at all. As a rule I try not to have expectations. I prefer to stay open to appreciate whatever comes, without trying to predict in advance what it will be.
It’s a good thing, because I could never have imagined even half of what Second Life would be for me.
Indeed, my initial impressions of Second Life contained little hint of what was to come. In my journal, I wrote, “The thing that has impressed me about Second Life is the solitude and spaciousness. Although it’s easy to find parties and crowds when you want to, you can explore vast territories without ever running into anyone. You can admire unique dwellings, shop in malls, stroll down a beach, watch a sunset while lounging on a bed suspended in the sky, fly over the ocean, meditate in a temple, or walk through a forest, and you might never see a soul.” All that is true, but clearly, at the age of 3 days, I had not yet discovered the essence of Second Life.
As a veteran of online communities. I am well-versed in the psychological, sociological and practical dynamics of forming a connection with unseen others using only typed text. And I have played enough games to appreciate 3D computer graphics. But even I was unprepared for what happens when you combine the two — text-based communication and immersive 3D graphics — and then, let the people who are using the world manipulate it, giving them the ability to create themselves, and create a world to inhabit.
The creativity within SL is truly astounding. Unlike most 3D games, any player has the power to create just about anything — homes, clothing, body parts, vehicles, trees, mountains, water, fire, you name it. Thus, you can be anything you want to be; I have been a beautiful woman, a dragon, and a swirling pile of leaves, among others. And you can see anything you want to see; people create amazing landscapes, cities, atmospheres, environments resembling anything on earth and some not of this earth.
This unbridled creativity astonished me during my first days in SL. And I quickly discovered that it had a big impact on the way that people relate to one another in this online venue. The resulting self-expression was, in itself, another means of communication. When we can be anyone and anything we want to be, when we can choose what kind of world we want to live in, what we choose says something about us. Without saying a word, we can communicate quite a bit about what we want, what we value, what we admire, what we wish for.
And what do we want? What do we wish for? Some SL newcomers arrive in gaming mode, so they follow familiar fantasy paths, becoming warriors, princesses, elves, dragons, soldiers, vampires, woodland creatures, etc. Others indulge in wish fulfillment, buying ostentatious homes, fast cars, extravagant yachts and so on, and making themselves look like Pamela Anderson or Fabio. But whatever environment or appearance they wish for, it’s usually not long before newcomers grasp that they can interact, not just with a game or a world, but with other people. The beautiful women and handsome men, the soldiers and princesses and even the vampires and woodland creatures, are not game characters. They are the visual representation of real people, who, like most of us, have a deep longing to feel connected to others.
Then the dance begins, and the hidden power of Second Life is manifest. Yes, the creative works can be wonderful to see, and yes, there are plenty of fun games to play. But this is not a video game that you play by yourself. The main game here is the same one we all play in First Life: the search for connectedness.
Next: Anything you want »