Webstalker*

Katha Pollitt**


When it's time to stop checking on your ex.

After my lover left me, I went a little crazy for a while. By day, I could pass for normal, as that concept is broadly understood on the Upper West Side, where I live - I sat at my desk, I took long furious walks in Riverside Park rehearsing all the terrible things I would say to him as he lay stricken with something rare and painful, I wandered through Zabar's looking for kitchen things to replace the ones he took when he moved out. What kind of person walks out the door after seven years with a wooden spoon, a spatula, a whisk? For months, I would find myself in the middle of a recipe only to discover that some basic, necessary implement was missing. But at night, after my daughter was in bed, I would settle myself at the computer with a cup of coffee, and till one or two in the morning I would browse the Internet, searching for information about him. Except "browse" is much too placid and leisured a word - a cow browses in a meadow, a reader browses in a library for a novel to take home for the weekend. What I did fell between zeal and monomania. I was like Javert, hunting him through the sewers of cyberspace, moving from link to link in the dark, like Spider-Man flinging himself by a filament over the shadowy chasm between one roof and another. "Are you Webstalking him?" a friend in her twenties asked over coffee. I hadn't known there was a word for what I was doing.

At first, I felt guilty, as if somehow he could know. After all, if an e-mail program can tell you whether your message has been opened, maybe a search engine can tell you that someone is checking you out. Still, I would plug his name into Google, Lycos, HotBot, Alta Vista and up would pop, in distilled, allusive, elliptical form, like a haiku or a mathematical curve, everything I should have known: the life behind my life. Out of a soup or cloud composed of book reviews, publishers' notices, conference announcements, course assignments, Listserv postings, and tiny mentions and stray references embedded in documents devoted to some quite distant theme, a person would slowly condense, like someone approaching out of a fog who at first looks as if he were made out of fog, only darker. There on my screen glowed the programs of academic gatherings he had attended going back for a decade: the same female names appeared over and over entwined with his in panel announcements. Why hadn't it struck me as odd that his "best friend," a professor of English literature, was the respondent for papers he gave at conferences on art history and philosophy? Was I even aware that they attended these events together? And what about the philosopher he'd been seeing, I'd recently discovered, when we started dating, and the art historian who called all the time and then, one day, stopped calling? They were on those panels, too. I had been so out of it!

But of course I already knew that. After he left, I walked around my semi-dismantled apartment and interrogated the ghost - squares on the empty walls. Were any of the pictures I had lived with gifts from women he had romanced? The cat cartoon? The charcoal of sad-looking trees? A splashy abstractionist painter, as a thank-you for writing about her work, had given him a big acrylic of black stripes laid over red swirls, like flames billowing behind an iron grille. He hung it in the living room and refused to take it down when I said I hated it, it reminded me of the gates of Hell. He had left only one art work behind - a colorful picture of two ambiguously sexed people embracing, by a jolly, tough-talking artist we had socialized with when her child and mine were small. I called her up and told her I had belatedly come to conclude that my lover had had affairs during our years together and I didn't want to keep her picture if she had slept with him. "I never saw his genitals," she said cheerfully - just mooned around with him in coffee shops. He had told her that I accepted his need for other women, SO it didn't seem fair to hate her. Besides, she'd turned him down. I left her picture up in the bathroom, next to the towel rack.

Still, it astonished me that she believed that business about my permitting his philandering. The only people who seem to know such women first-hand are the men who are cheating on them. You never hear a woman say, "Whatever George wants is fine with me - 1 just want him to be happy!" No woman has ever passed on to another the riveting news that Miriam understands that Joe needs variety It is only men who seem to possess this bit of intimate knowledge, which apparently is so instantly credible, so obviously true, that no one ever asks the woman herself about it. What was it about me, I wondered, that made people accept his story? Perhaps I emitted a sort of wan victim-aura, like someone sitting alone in a Greek diner. Or perhaps people just couldn't believe I was so oblivious. After all, I was intelligent, I was a New Yorker, I was alive.

But, then, how well does anyone really know anyone else? My lover used to make fun of people who gave money to museums and universities - he claimed that they just wanted to feel important by connecting themselves to elite bourgeois institutions. Yet, according to Google, in 1995 he made a donation to the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts, at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay, a cultural venue that he never mentioned and that I was not even aware existed. Or was it someone else? After all, he was not the only person with his name. There was his father, the Marxist theoretician. Most of my search results were about him - fans from Canada to Korea posted his works far and wide. While living with his son, I had found his books impenetrably technical and Teutonic, but through sheer familiarity I was coming to enjoy his gloomy, sardonic turn of mind, his doom-laden pronouncements in which the certainty that he was right was given a poignant cast by his awareness that few were listening and fewer agreed. I found myself nodding in sympathy as I reencountered his work. "Capitalism," he wrote, "has nowhere to go but to its death." You can't argue with that. There were also numerous mentions of a property lawyer in Australia who was active in his children's school, and an accountant on the Isle of Wight who placed well in the 1999 North Drove Doddle amateur rowing competition, and who may or may not be the man of the same name who was an avid promoter of shove ha'penny, an old English game. It was barely possible, but most unlikely, that my lover, sometimes under his name and sometimes under assorted misspellings of it, posted brief rude messages in idiomatic French on a Web site devoted to the work of the "bad boy" filmmaker Leos Carax ("bojarksi arrete de boire la tasse"; "bah alors!"). But that person did not sound like someone who cared about bringing culture to the Midwest. Perhaps the Weidner donor was one of those rare people who are unknown to the Net: someone with no e-mail, no Web site or Web page, no blog or - barring that one donation - connections with anyone who has. Perhaps he still wrote letters on a typewriter and posted them at the mailbox on the corner when he walked the dog in the crisp Wisconsin morning. If only I had met him instead of my lover! Unless, of course, he was my lover.

Mostly, though, I Webstalked him to find out what he was up to now. I knew when he went to Philadelphia for the College Art Association meeting, when his essay on eighteenth-century art-critical terminology was assigned in a class at Essex University, when he sent a flattering e-mail to the Web site of a conceptual artist whose work consisted of reading "Das Kapital" out loud in dozens of obscure foreign languages and invited this artist to be involved in a book he was "producing" with his new girlfriend. I don't know what made me saddest: that they were co-writing, or at least co-producing - whatever that is - a book? That he was seeking out this half-baked poseur? That he prefaced his girlfriend's name with "critic," the way it would appear in Time? Clearly, his prose style had deteriorated since he left me - the man I loved would surely have written "the critic," which is the correct and elegant usage.

I've always believed in the Nero Wolfe theory of knowledge. You can just sit quietly in your room - according to Pascal, the activity that if practiced more assiduously would free humanity from most of its troubles, but that was before e-mail - and through sheer mental effort force the tiniest snippets of information to yield the entire story of which they are a fragment, because the whole truth is contained in every particle of it, the way every human cell contains our DNA. Thus, each new search result drove me wild with excitement: maybe this would be the link that would, properly understood, reveal all. Late at night, sipping my cold coffee, I saw the Web as a parallel world, the verbal equivalent of the life we live, a shimmering net of information that exactly and completely corresponds to the world. It was like something a medieval rabbi might conjure up out of the Kabbalah: a magical set of propositions that acted as a mirror of reality and perhaps even allowed you to control it and change it. It was as if I would be able actually to watch him in real time - giving a talk, teaching a class, making dinner, making love - if I could only find that final link that would make the parallel proposition-world complete. Unfortunately, I wasn't very technologically adept. I kept running into the limits of my skills. What, for example, is a PDF? Some pieces of seemingly routine information I was unable to find, although I felt sure they had to be there, somewhere, behind the brick wall of my ineptitude: his course schedule (did it still match that of the "best friend"?), his new girlfriend's undergraduate college or home town or birth date. I knew where he lived, because his girlfriend was listed in the phone book, but did they have cats? Did he take her to the restaurants we had discovered together? I kicked myself for not having written down his Social Security and credit-card numbers. "You don't have those?" my young friend asked, surprised. She had a whole I.D. file on her boyfriend, "just in case."

How could I find out more? I considered replying to one of those spam ads advertising detective software, like the "Banned CD" that supposedly helps you turn up all sorts of hidden legal and financial information about people. But those e-mails had a threatening, paranoid tone: responding might connect me with sinister people who would show up at my apartment. Besides, it was one thing to stay up half the night going through the archives of obscure leftist Listservs and e-mailing this or that woman to ask if she had ever slept with my lover. (Amazingly, they all wrote back nice notes affirming that they had, except for one, who sent a huffy e-mail saying that it was none of my business. In other words, yes.) Then, too, the Banned CD cost $19.95, and to pay for information would be proof of serious dementia.

Instead, I tried to break into his e-mail. I had his password - "marxist" - or did I? When I asked him what his password was, a few months before he left, he had cleared his throat and paused. I attributed this hesitation to modesty - he was embarrassed to claim such a heroic identity, or to use such a large, noble, world-historical word for such a trivial purpose. But perhaps he hesitated because he was afraid I would use it and find out his secrets - or was thinking up a fake password so that I couldn't. In any case, "marxist" didn't work when I tried to access his mail through mail2web.com - nor did any of the other words I tried: "marxism," "marx," "karlmarx," "engels," "communist," "communism," "pannekoek," "korsch," "luxemburg," "luxembourg," "belgium, " "chocolate," "godiva," "naked," "breast," "cunnilingus," "fellatio," or the names of our cats, his new girlfriend, his mother's dead golden retriever. My password is "secret," which is so obvious that e-mail programs cite it as the exact word not to choose, but which I liked because it was a pun - "secret" as a secret password, the word that is also the thing itself I noticed he didn't ask for my password, but I told him anyway.

He had accused me of being addicted to the Internet, and he was right. I spent hours every day following the news, and surfing from one odd Web site to another. I joined Listservs all over the left, from Aut-Op-Sy, which focussed on the ideas of the Italian anarchist Toni Negri, to Women Leaders Online, for pro-choice Democratic feminists, and carried on intense discussions with people I came to feel I knew in some deep, ultimate way, although I had never met them and didn't want to. What I loved about the Internet was its purity and swiftness, I told him, the feeling of being without a body, of flying into space in all directions at once, of becoming a stream of words going into the blue, a mind touching other minds. I think he took this as a sexual rejection. "You would spend five hours e-mailing with the Women Leaders Online," he said accusingly the day he left, "but you wouldn't spend five hours in bed with me." My women friends all had the same response to this remark "Five hours?"

When he left, I felt like an alcoholic who can finally put the bottle on the table and drink as much as she wants. He wasn't my only target; I Webstalked everyone in his world. His girlfriend, of course, whose prolific output of art journalism I was able to skim online: how apparent, once you looked for them, were the little signs of his growing influence over the past few years - his favorite tag from Nietzsche, a nod to Pierre Bourdieu. I knew what courses she taught and in what month her term on the faculty senate would expire. I followed the fortunes of her books on Amazon, where I did not post nasty anonymous readers' reviews ("Writes like a baton twirler with a Ph.D." - John Ruskin, Yale University; "The worst!" - a reader from Colorado). That would be dishonorable, and, besides, what if she figured out it was me? A search for images turned up three magazine covers, a basket of kittens, and a darkly beautiful, radiantly smiling woman dressed in sequins and lifting a glass of champagne. Fortunately, further research suggested that this was not her but an Italian countess involved in animal rescue. Once, I even tried to listen to a lecture she gave on conceptual art at a remote Midwestern university, but I couldn't figure out how to make the audio work, and then suddenly out of the machine a kind of rushing-water sound welled up that could have been hands clapping, and I knew I was on the edge of true self-humiliation and quickly hit Restart, burning with shame.

I Googled his mother, his therapist, his former girlfriends, the members of the Marxist study group we had attended together. I spent a whole night trying to reconstruct, Web site by Web site, what he had told me about a widowed friend: had her husband really been a bigamist, with another wife and child, and did the admiring graduate student who wrote his online obituary know that? My lover had always defended this arrangement, which involved a certain amount of subterfuge: a false phone number and a secret studio reached through a hallway disguised as a closet. That should have told me something. My lover claimed that the friend - the bigamee? - had had numerous affairs while her semi-partner or half husband or whatever you call him was off with his other family. In fact, he claimed that she had told him she was unable to be friends with a man without sleeping with him. You'd never imagine it to meet her, a shy, trim woman in her seventies with a child's scrubbed face and the ethereal smile of an ex-nun. That should have told me something, too.

You think what people say is what matters, an older friend told me long ago. You think it's all about words. Well, that's natural, isn't it? I'm a writer, I can float for hours on a word like "amethyst" or "broom" or the way so many words sound like what they are: "earth" so firm and basic, "air" so light, like a breath. You can't imagine them the other way around: She plunged her hands into the rich brown air. Sometimes I think I would like to be a word - not a big important word, like "love" or "truth," just a small ordinary word, like "orange" or "inkstain" or "so," a word that people use so often and so unthinkingly that its specialness has all been worn away like the roughness on a pebble in a creekbed, but that has a solid heft when you pick it up, and if you hold it to the light at just the right angle you can glimpse the spark at its core. But of course what my friend meant was that I ignored inconvenient subtexts, the meaning behind the meaning: that someone might say he loved you, but what really mattered was the way he let your hand go after he said it. It did not occur to me, either, that somebody might just lie, that there are people who lie for pleasure, for the feeling of superiority and power. And yet it should have. When I was a magazine editor, I had an assistant who lied all the time. Once, on a slow spring day, he called up the N.Y.U. Jewish student center, pretended to be a British Jew stranded in New York, and wangled an invitation to its Seder. Finally, he went too far, insisting that he had checked the price of a book on Buddhism we had reviewed in the previous issue, and it really was $18.03. "I thought it was odd, too," he mused. "It must be a Zen thing." By the time I worked up the courage to fire him, he had already talked his way into a much better job, and somehow arranged it that his new employers never called me for a reference. Some people just land on their feet.

After the first burst of information, progress was slow. How thrilling was it, really, to discover that his name was mentioned in the abstract of a paper about religious iconography in a particular Catholic girls' school in Western Australia? And yet I kept on. After all, some people, mostly women, not all of them in the porn business, had Web sites hooked up to a camera in their home: you could watch them talking on the phone, eating toast, taking a shower, sleeping, and you could read the diaries in which they nattered on about their day, entries so unenlivened by wit or dash or passion or curiosity that you despaired for the human race. Perhaps if I persisted I would discover tucked away in a far corner of the Web a camera recording his new life: Did he and his new girlfriend stay up till 3 A.M. talking? Did she wake up at night and lie there brimming over with happiness? Of course, a camera couldn't tell you that; all you'd see would be a quilt with a lump under it. Still, I might have watched. It was so terrible to go from living with someone to never seeing him, never even glimpsing the top of his head bent over the art magazines at Barnes &Noble or catching sight of him through the window at the meat counter at Citarella. It was as if he had vanished in a puff of smoke.

Actually, the amazing thing was that, in a way, there was such a camera. Leafing through the Times real-estate listings one Sunday, idly looking for that elusive "Classic 6 Riv Vu Needs TLC - Owner Anxious!," I came across an ad for an open house: they were selling her apartment. I wasn't surprised - I had heard they had gotten married. But was I correctly remembering her address? I went to the real-estate company's Web site and, sure enough, there was a list of open houses. I clicked on the address I had seen in the paper and up came a floor plan - a typical single-woman one-bedroom, small and boxy, with, I was pleased to note, only one good-sized closet. "Excellent FS building," chirped the accompanying text. "Great light - sun pours in!" I clicked again and slowly a photograph cranked into focus: the living room. It had obviously been edited and tidied for the buyer's eye, but you could see the inhabitants' taste: spare, contemporary, unencumbered - not his style at all. Still, there was his music stand in the corner; a pillow I had forgotten about was carefully deployed on a gray couch, and there on her wall were the pictures that had formerly hung on my wall - the cat cartoon, the sad trees, the gates of Hell. If only I could enlarge the photo enough times, perhaps I would make out my old spoon and spatula and whisk in the container on the countertop. It was as if the two of them had just left and would come back any minute, laden with groceries, laughing. I clicked on the bedroom photo, but it wouldn't come up. Perhaps they were in there, basking in the great light.

There wasn't any point going on after that. I had found the magic Web site, the one that was a secret window into reality, but what did it show me that I didn't already know? What difference did it make what color their sofa was? In fact, what had any of my researches revealed that mattered in the end? I had proved to myself that the Internet was indeed a verbal map of the world, the set of propositions that were all that was the case, thrown over the physical world like a medieval rabbi's invisible cloak. But that was all it was. It could mirror facts and events, but not only could it not control or change them, it could not answer my real question: Why? In the months to come, I would look back on this time in my life almost as a kind of out-of-body travel, from which I had returned with nothing but a sense memory of having been somewhere inexpressibly exciting and far away. It wasn't like a dream, exactly, although it had a dream's strange internal logic. It was like looking through the window of an airplane at night, the way the city below appears so near, yet untouchable beyond the glass - a network of lights, flames, stars.

*01/19/2004 The New Yorker.  

**Katha Pollitt is a poet and essayist and the author of Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture.

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