I have an avatar.
I am forty-three years old. I am balding and thickening around the middle. I have a mediocre job with a mediocre company which is outwardly ambitious to be in the top ten in their sector in five years’ time, but inwardly, all they wish is to still be in business. My ambitions mirror theirs.
So, naturally, my avatar is in her early twenties, stick thin with enormous breasts, spiky hair and an attitude to match.
She is called Sandro. I’m not sure why. I may have hit some wrong keys.
We explore Second Earth together. She has a knife but prefers to use her fists if narrowing her eye into cat-like slits doesn’t get her way. She spends a lot of time in bars and fast cars. I confess I sometimes get her to do things I wouldn’t want to detail to my wife. Let’s not go there.
Recently, she’s been hard to get hold of. Normally, I log in and she’s waiting, as if time had stood still for her and we’d never been apart. With me she goes cage fighting and plays bass in a band, Grudge Match.
Now, when I do find her, it’s like she doesn’t want to know. There’s a momentary pause, a rolling of the eyes—at least I think so, my monitor’s definition isn’t the best—before she complies.
I get Grudge Match a gig at a wedding; I’m their de facto manager. Sandro turns to me. “A wedding?”
This isn’t how it works. She’s my avatar. She does what I say. She says what I type.
“Yes,” I hiss at the screen. “A wedding.” I feel ridiculous. “It’s not that type of wedding. You don’t have to wear tuxes or anything.”
“Grudge Match don’t play no wedding. We’re real, get real.” She stabs a threatening finger at me and disappears from my screen. This has never happened before.
I go to bed shaken and it takes me some time to get to sleep.
The next time I log on to Second Earth she is in front of her own monitor, her back to me. I press the controls to move her, pick up her bass, take her to rehearsal. But she waves me away without even turning round.
“Busy,” she calls.
“Grudge Match rehearsal,” I hiss. My wife is in the kitchen one door away.
She answers with a single raised finger.
She swears at me loudly and repeats she’s busy and won’t move.
I exit Second Earth. SimCity is lame in comparison and I spend the rest of the day moody.
The next morning Sandro is lying on our couch, large as life, channel-hopping. She shimmers oddly, like she’s constantly rendering. I don’t know what to say.
“You don’t have many channels,” she says in response to my open-mouthed rabbit-in-headlights disbelief. “And you don’t have much in the fridge. Anymore.”
Sandro has been hard to explain to my family. I’ve used the goddaughter ploy, but they haven’t bought it. “How long are you staying?” I hiss at her. She just shrugs.
I’m not sure I like her.
She spends an inordinate amount of time horizontal on the couch. I regret making her so tall. I find empty chip packets stuffed between the cushions. She’s unlocked mirror mode in Mario Kart in less than two days; none of us have managed that. And if she’s not in front of the television she’s at our computer. The kids are falling behind in their homework.
And she has a slightly too sarcastic sense of humor.
“You look coordinated today, bro,” she says.
I look down at my shirt, suit, tie combo. “You think?” I say proudly.
“I meant your limbs.”
She says the N-word a lot and stuff that makes little sense. I realize this street-pidgin reflects too much time on my part listening to Shaft in the family car (five-star safety rating!), too much time watching Tarantino and blaxploitation movies. All this has given me strength of conviction but no depth of knowledge.
“Why don’t you learn to talk properly,” I say.
And she leans over to me, close to my ear, and says in a stage whisper, “It feels no different, you know? It’s like being hypnotized.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Being an avatar. Being controlled. Directed. It comes with the illusion of free will. But then, doesn’t life?”
And the next day she is gone.
Warily, I log into Second Earth. She’s there in her apartment, back to me, at her keyboard.
“Sandro,” I say. None of my controls move her. “Sandro,” I call.
But a moment later I find myself standing. I glimpse the screen she’s at. A paunchy balding figure rises from a chair at a computer screen and moves into a different room. I too find myself moving, through kitchen, hall, and then out of my front door. I get in the car. I know I should tell my wife and family where I’m going but it’s all happening too quickly. Plus I don’t know.
I put the car in reverse and pull out, revving, hitting the brakes harder than usual. Rubber squeals on blacktop as the car wallows to halt.
“Let’s have some fun,” Sandro’s disembodied voice echoes in my head. And with that I hit the gas.