Logging on to my email account, I was pleased to find a message from Evelyn, an ex-girlfriend, whom I hadn’t seen in years. Last I’d heard, Evelyn was married, with twins, living in San Francisco where she ran a store that sold stained glass.
I was less pleased after I read her message:
Judd-My husband and I find your emails inappropriate. Please respect our privacy and desist from trying to contact me.
Oh God, I thought, I’ve been drunk emailing again.
Months before, there had been an incident on myspace where I received a response from a woman I didn’t know to a question I had no memory of asking. After searching my account, it became apparent that I had been coming home from the bars after hours and firing off messages of lascivious intent that, come morning, I had no recollection of ever having sent.
Much to my surprise, however, after an exhaustive search, I discovered that I had not sent Evelyn an email in years, and the last one I did send was perfectly benign.
So I replied:
Great to hear from you. Hope things are well in San Fran. I received your message but have no memory nor any evidence of having sent you ANY emails. Are you sure you got the right guy? Best to…. Max, was it?
A few days later, Evelyn wrote back:
Judd-Come off it. You think we don’t know who Fish is?
This was getting interesting. For two years, I had been writing a blog called Filth that chronicled the life of a fictitious character named Julius “Fish” Fischman, his best friend, Arty From Philly, and a woman known only as Intimate Relationship #9.5. I figured this was the Fish to whom Evelyn was referring.
Dear Evelyn-Either you’re putting me on or somebody is putting us both on. Take into account that your web address is revealed on your myspace page. Just because these mystery emails are signed “Fish” doesn’t mean they’re from me.
She wrote one last time:
Judd-Figure it out and make it stops [sic].
Her last message came with an attachment that contained copies of the various missives sent to her by one firstname.lastname@example.org. Indeed, the emails contained material inappropriate to send to any woman, married or otherwise. They seemed to represent the unsavory intentions of a well-educated misanthrope whose sexual proclivities could best be described as criminal.
But they weren’t from me. Nor did I ever register a gmail account by that name, which led me to suspect that there was some imposter masquerading as Julius “Fish” Fischman in order to harass my friends and exes, all of whom would be easy to find for anyone with a myspace account and a link to my page. Perhaps the culprit was someone I knew, some friend playing a practical joke, or perhaps it was an enemy or con man running a scam.
I sent the following email to email@example.com:
Dear Fish-Who are you?
PS. Leave Evelyn alone.
Within seconds, I got the following reply:
I had to find him.
I started with a search on myspace and, sure enough, located a profile for one Julius “Fish” Fischman, 32 years old, writer/actor, living in Los Angeles. And here’s the kicker: 218,596 friends. I only had 164.
But not only was Fish more popular than I, he was also taller (5’10”), richer (income $150,000 – $200,000), and better looking, or at least the avatar on his profile looked better than the photograph on mine. I couldn’t know for certain if the artist who designed it was trying to represent me, but judging by the frizzy hair, slumped posture, big ears, and crooked nose, it’s safe to assume the graphic was at least inspired by me if not modeled directly.
The myspace profile also revealed that Fish writes a blog called Smut which one can view at www.juliusfischman.com. It’s a well-designed page, more professional than mine with many more comments, links, and advertisements, though the writing isn’t nearly as good. Fish’s voice reminded me of a poor man’s Bukowski aspiring toward Haruki Murakami. There’s a whiff of misogyny prevalent in his descriptions of women and a lack of discipline to his style, though an undercurrent of self-deprecating humor does save it from being total trash.
The protagonist in Smut – in case you haven’t guessed by now – goes by the name of “Judd Trichter,” but the Judd Trichter on the blog doesn’t resemble me in any way. Instead, Fish writes Judd Trichter as a drug-addled freeloader who suffers from delusions of grandeur while treating his mother like shit, borrowing money left and right, masturbating constantly, needlessly rebelling against authority, and generally lacking the ability or talent to ever get anything done.
In other words, Fish’s page had the makings of a lawsuit.
I called Kenny Gutstein, my attorney, at once.
“Listen to this,” I said. “There’s some clown on the internet pretending to be me. Wait a minute. That’s not quite right. He’s pretending to be a character I created.”
“And he’s harassing my friends and writing terrible things about me.”
“True things?” my lawyer asked.
“Some. But most are lies.”
“And judging by his page, it looks like the sonofabitch makes money.”
“Great,” said Gutstein. “What’s his name?”
“I don’t know his real name, but on the internet, he goes by Julius Fischman.”
“Stop right there.”
“What’s the problem?”
“He’s a client.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“You represent this fraud?”
“I represent Julius Fischman,” said Gutstein, “and believe me when I tell you, this fraud, as you call him, brings in ten times the revenue you ever brought.”
I asked if I was entitled to any of that.
“Not a cent,” Gutstein shouted into the phone before I could finish my question. “And if you intend any legal action against him, you can expect a counter suit and an injunction that will shut down your page.”
“But he’s my creation,” I complained. “Without me he doesn’t exist.”
“Well… I’m sure Julius Fischman would argue the same about you.”
There went my lawsuit.
I sent Fischman another email:
Dear Fish,Where can I call you? I want to talk.
He responded with a terse imperative:
The next step was to browse through Fischman’s thousands of myspace friends to see if we had any in common. I found one: Tracy Choo. Of course Tracy would know Fish. I should have known.
Tracy Choo was a half-Korean, half-android woman who worked as a barista in an internet cafe where I used to sip tea at two in the morning and write. She introduced herself one night, after her shift, when she sat down next to me and asked what I was working on. Turned out Tracy knew all about Filth and was psyched to learn I was the man behind it. We wound up talking for hours, constantly interrupted by the electronic gadgets she tended to at all times: some DJ from Japan calling her cell, some computer hacker IM’ing her, some web artist sending her a video text. To talk to Tracy was to interact with only half of her while the other half drifted through the constellations of cyberspace.
On our date, Tracy and I shoveled Kimchi into our mouths and washed down ecstasy with our sake. We danced at a crowded rave in an abandoned warehouse downtown. In the morning, we drove back to her apartment and its many screens and monitors, its criss-crossed cables, its overwhelmed power strips and webcams rigged to the ceilings in every room.
“Just so you know,” she said, “if we have sex, there will be thousands of people watching around the world.”
Despite what one might presume from my being an actor, exhibitionism isn’t really my bag, but ecstasy combined with a hot Korean android can do strange things to a man, and I decided to give it a try.
The sex wasn’t what I hoped. Even though she was eager and able to please, the fact that Tracy didn’t sweat or carry a scent had the effect of reminding me that she was only half-human. Nor did it help my self-esteem that as a condition of her manufacture, Tracy couldn’t lubricate naturally and had to shove a fresh battery up her ass between orgasms. It’s hard to say this without sounding like a bigot, but I’ve always thought that dating an android – even one who’s only half – was an admission of failure or at the very least a compromise I didn’t want to make.
We went out one more time, but after that, I lied and told Tracy I was getting back with an ex. She took it hard.
“What’s she got that I don’t?”
“Nothing,” I said. “It’s just that my ex and I have a history, and I want to see if we can make it work.”
We were outside at the time, and the rain drops collecting on her cheek made it look like she was crying.
“I thought we had something,” Tracy whispered toward the ground. “I thought we had something real.”
“I thought so too,” I replied. But that was also a lie.
After seeing her profile on Fish’s myspace page, I sent Tracy an email to feel out whether she’d be willing to talk:
Hey Trace-Long time no see. How’ve you been? Came across your profile on myspace and thought I’d say hi. Hope all’s well.
Tracy replied with an indecipherable stream of words, letters, and symbols that might as well have been written in binary. I emailed her again and asked if it would be okay if I called. She responded thus:
Though possible that she was asking, “Why,” I took the letter “Y” to mean “Yes” and gave her a ring.
Tracy and I spoke for about fifteen minutes, catching up on the last year of each others’ lives, until finally we overcame the awkwardness inherent in my calling. Then I brought up Fish.
“What about him?” she asked.
“I see he’s on your myspace page.”
“He found me in a chat room and asked me out.”
“Did you go out with him?”
“Couple of times.”
“What’s he like?”
“Kind of like you, I guess, but not exactly.”
I asked her to elaborate.
“He’s more angsty,” she decided. “Better looking. More stylish. Just sexier in a weird way.”
“Sexier than me?”
“Yeah. And he’s a better writer too. Have you seen his blog?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’ve read his blog. And thank you.”
I asked Tracy if she had slept with Fish, and she admitted she did.
“How was that?” I asked.
“Well,” she sighed, “he did make me come.”
“So did I.”
“Uh… no.” Liar. “But I have to tell you,” she added right away, softening in her rebuke, “he wasn’t you. As much as I wanted him to be, he just wasn’t.”
“How so?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she mused. “It’s hard to put my finger on it, but whenever I was with Fish, I always got the feeling that he was an actor playing the role of you. And since you’re an actor yourself, it was like he was an actor playing the role of another actor. Whenever I was with him, I felt incredibly aware of his being a generation removed from the original, and, worst of all, I think he was aware of it too.”
And yet he was able to make her come.
“When was the last time you two spoke?”
“It’s been a while,” she answered in a shrugging tone that indicated he wasn’t an entity that dwelled in her thoughts or remained in her life. “Last I heard he was living in Silverlake with his girlfriend. I think they’re having a kid.”
I told Tracy that I had been trying to get a hold of Fish and asked if there was some way she could put us in touch.
“I can give you his cell number.”
I called Fish’s cell and got his voice mail. There was no recording of his voice on the outgoing message, just a beep, after which I left my number and told him to call.
He responded via text:
What do you want
I typed back:
I want to meet
Quickly, he wrote:
Farmer’s market 3 o clock
Where in farmers market?
At three o’clock, in the rain, by the jewelry kiosk at the Farmer’s Market, I waited to meet the character I created or the imposter who was playing him. After half an hour of asking every 30-something man who passed if he was Julius Fischman, I decided to text the guy again:
Where are you?
Where the fuck are you?
The guy was like Mamet with his dialogue. Cold and wet, I decided to cut my losses and go. Whoever this prick was, he obviously didn’t want to meet.
That night, when I got home, I began work on a story called The Jew’s Tale. In it, Julius Fishman has decided to commit suicide, but before doing so, he wants to get his watch fixed at the jewelry kiosk at the Farmer’s Market. The kiosk is run by an old Jew who convinces Fish to trade his watch for a diamond ring. Fish returns home, pins the ring to his sweater, and attempts to hang himself. In the end, however, Fish passes out just before the rope gives, and he wakes to find himself engaged to his pregnant girlfriend, Intimate Relationship #9.5.
It took me about a week to finish the story, and after publishing it online, I got the following email from Fish:
I wrote back:
Fuck you. you stood me up
You stood ME up
I wasn’t buying it. I mean, yes, it is possible there’s another Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles with a jewelry kiosk, but it’s damn unlikely, and given the circumstances, I figured Fish for a liar.
The next day the sonofabitch emailed me a link to his blog which contained a story that, in my opinion, crossed over into the realm of bad taste. It was a story that involved an actor named Judd Trichter, who was so down on his luck, he was forced to take a job working on an X-rated film. But rather than acting in the film, Judd’s role was to apply lubricant to the necessary body parts on the actors and actresses when they called for it on the set. According to the story, the name ascribed to such an occupation is “lube boy.”
Normally, I wouldn’t let such an insult bother me, but the following day, I was sitting in the waiting room at an audition when all of a sudden the casting director started laughing her ass off after reading my name on the sign-in.
“Is your name really Judd Trichter?” she asked.
I told her it was.
“You’re ‘lube boy’!”
I called Tracy.
“This has to stop.”
“Yeah,” Tracy sympathized, “you guys have some issues. Fish was really pissed you stood him up at the Farmer’s Market.”
“I stood him up? He stood me up.”
“That’s not what he says.”
“When did you talk to him?”
“A few days ago. He said you don’t return his calls.”
“That’s a lie,” I insisted, but Tracy confessed that she didn’t know who to believe.
“He doesn’t like the things you write about him. He thinks you’re unfair.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Well, for one thing, he wants to be successful.”
“But he is successful. His website is ten times as profitable as mine.”
“That’s true,” she agreed, “but no one would know it by reading your stories.”
“What else?” I asked.
“He wants to be happy.”
“I’m sure he does.”
“He told me to tell you that he’ll stop harassing you if you let him edit your page.”
“No chance,” I said. I had my pride.
“He said he’s willing to pay.”
It was raining again on the day of the meet. I had so little money and so little gas in my car, I was worried that if I drove down to Koreatown, I’d have no way of getting back.
The building Tracy lived in looks like a giant mainframe computer. It sits on Wilshire Boulevard facing a vast television screen that plays beer commercials for the Asian market. To get to her apartment required going up one elevator then down two flights of stairs to get to another elevator that took me to the roof so that I could climb down a fire escape that led to her window.
Inside, Tracy had turned off the lights and drawn the curtains so that all I could see was a green flicker from the giant screen outside.
“Wear these,” she said, handing me a pair of sunglasses as I entered. There was an ambient sound coming from her bedroom — either some avant-garde mix tape or a white noise from Tracy’s machines and gadgets hooked up into a complex feedback loop.
“Is he here?” I asked.
“He’s in the bedroom. You’ll have to converse with him through a screen.”
With the sunglasses on, I couldn’t see a thing. Tracy led me by the hand as I tripped over phone lines and cables and finally reached a desk at which she told me to sit.
“I’m not sure this will work,” she said as she placed a keyboard on my lap. “The technology isn’t quite there yet, and neither is your writing.”
I sat for a minute in total darkness, listening to the noise from the bedroom getting louder and louder until, suddenly, a series of letters flashed before my eyes:
FISH: glad you could make it
I typed my response on the keyboard:
JUDD: my pleasure
FISH: allow me to get right to the point. you made a big mistake making intimate relationship #9.5 pregnant
JUDD: how you figure?
FISH: as written, i am clearly incapable of being a decent father. i don’t make enough money, and i don’t like my fiance
FISH: so what will happen to the child?
JUDD: nothing good i suppose
FISH: you think that’s funny?
JUDD: wasn’t meant to be. you live in a cruel and unfair world
FISH: then maybe i can live somewhere else
FISH: i don’t know
JUDD: me either
The screen stayed black for a moment.
FISH: what if my writing career were to take off?
JUDD: the reader never sees your writing because he’s supposed to assume it represents the voice of an honest man in a world with no value for honesty
FISH: and there’s no way i can find success in that world?
JUDD: not as a writer
FISH: but i want to write. i like writing
JUDD: then you won’t find success
FISH: what if ir#9.5 has a miscarriage?
JUDD: that’s a cop out
FISH: what if the world were to change and find a place for my work?
JUDD: that’d be nice, but it isn’t a part of my experience, and it wouldn’t be something i’d write
FISH: even if i paid you?
JUDD: even if you paid me
JUDD: what’s that? your ‘angry face’?
JUDD: ooh, i’m scared
FISH: what youre doing is cruel. it’s cruel to me, cruel to the child, and cruel to ir#9.5. for god’s sake, man, she’s having my baby and i don’t even know her name
JUDD: her name is Ethel
FISH: Ethel? why Ethel?
JUDD: Julius and Ethel
FISH: oh. very funny
TR8CE: i don’t get it
JUDD: don’t get what?
TR8CE: why is Ethel funny?
TR8CE: ohhhhhhhhhhh! :-)))))
FISH: so what happens after she has the baby?
JUDD: you’ll give up your dreams, take a series of mundane jobs, and devote yourself to being a good father
FISH: does this make me happy?
JUDD: not at all. you’ll be as much a failure at fatherhood as you were in the arts. your relationship with ir#9.5 – excuse me – Ethel, will further deteriorate as each of you suffer through the lie of a marriage held together by the bond of a child neither of you actually want
FISH: where’s the light at the end of that tunnel?
JUDD: no light. just suffering
FISH: so i’m a martyr
JUDD: i suppose
FISH: a martyr to what?
JUDD: to absolutely fucking nothing
FISH: and there’s no other way? no compromise I can pay you to make?
FISH: then i hope you don’t mind if i send an email to your mother telling her you’re back on heroin
JUDD: i hope you don’t mind if Ethel has twins
FISH: how ’bout i put that McRibs commercial on youtube
JUDD: how ’bout I just delete your ass, take down the whole page, and let your whole existence dissipate into the cyber-void
FISH: you don’t have the balls
JUDD: that’s where you’re wrong, douchebag. i’m tired of Filth and the next stage of your life doesn’t interest me. i’d rather move on and write something else
FISH: and throw away something you’ve spent the last two years working on?
JUDD: why not? you ever see how few hits it gets? it’s like you barely exist in the first place
FISH: so do it then
JUDD: maybe i will
FISH: what’s stopping you?
JUDD: frankly, the only thing stopping me was that i was hoping you’d pay me to keep you alive
FISH: if you let me edit the page
JUDD: no chance
FISH: why not?!
JUDD: because i think your writing sucks
FISH: fuck you
JUDD: no, FUCK YOU!!!!
FISH: you’ll delete Ethel and Arty from Philly too?
JUDD: all of youse
FISH: good. great.
JUDD: glad you approve
FISH: so get on with it then
JUDD: looking for the passwords…
TR8CE: stop it, stop it, stop!
FISH: he started
JUDD: how did I start?
TR8CE: Fish doesn’t want to disappear. he’s just scared. he’s scared of having a child because he’s never been one himself. the whole childhood experience is completely alien to him
JUDD: how’s that my problem?
TR8CE: fish, don’t you ever feel incomplete? like you’re missing something that everyone else seems to have?
FISH: sometimes i can’t find my keys
TR8CE: i’m serious. and judd, if the next stage of Fish’s life doesn’t interest you, what about an earlier stage? why not write about how fish became fish?
JUDD: who would want to read that?
TR8CE: i would
JUDD: no you wouldn’t
TR8CE: i would, Judd. i really would :’-)
FISH: maybe it’d be cool to be a child
JUDD: believe me, i was a child for years. and it sucked
TR8CE: are you telling me you wouldn’t go back if you could?
JUDD: maybe high school. but only for the ass
TR8CE: come on judd. do it
FISH: yeah, Judd. i want to be a child
JUDD: you have no idea what you’re asking for
TR8CE: and write it as a novel this time. no more short stories
FISH: I’ll pay you for it
JUDD: how much?
FISH: i’ll talk to gutstein and make an offer
JUDD: and no one gets to edit what i write!
The screen went black, and the noise from the bedroom faded. There was a burning sensation in my eyes, and when I shut them, I faded out into sleep.
It was still raining at dusk, when I awoke, fully dressed in Tracy’s bed, staring up at the webcam on her ceiling. Curled up beside me, Tracy faced the window, her terry cloth robe open to reveal the olive sheen of her thighs.
“I made you some tea,” she said, sensing somehow that I was awake.
The petal-scented steam rose from the cup on the night stand. I could feel Tracy’s long, synthetic hair coarse against my face as we listened to the rain crackle against the tinted glass of her window.
“Ten pages a week,” she said. “Direct deposit into your account.”
Behind the curtain, outside the window, the giant screen emitted a blank, grey light into the room. It was a steady light. No flickering. And I couldn’t help but fear that the TV was somehow rigged to the webcam above us, projecting our intimacy to the traffic that fitted and started down Wilshire Boulevard.
“Will you do it?” she asked.
I listened to the crackle caused by individual rain drops, falling from the sky, accelerating downward at a rate of 9.8 meters per second squared, to collide with the window like shrapnel smashed against a wall.
“I never got to meet him,” I said, reflecting on the idea that the crackle of rain was nothing more than the static hiss of the Earth Machine processing units of condensation as if they were so many bits of data organized through river applications into oceanic dreams.
Tracy turned her body from the window, away from the glass that never breaks despite the force of a million raindrop collisions. She turned her body into mine, forehead against my temple, nose against my cheek, her button mouth touching the corner of my lips.
“You found a way to communicate,” she whispered beneath her breath, barely audible above the crackle and hiss. “It’s a start.”