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I lose a lot of sleep to be out in the dark. Every morning I run like blazes with my pit bull Glinda, before the other early birds and before the sun, even when it’s so freezing my breath shreds my lungs. And at night, I pump my motorcycle through the wet streets of Seattle, Alice in Chains plugged into my ears, wind smashing my face.
       To stay awake after my nightly five hours, I keep clean and busy. In the morning I wash my face in the kitchen sink, with cold water and good hard glycerin soap, and no mirror. Two egg whites and chia seeds for breakfast, and thirty minutes of yoga followed by a brisk rub of the foam roller. When I’m not working, I’m painting, destroying misty moony landscapes with big slings of red paint, or metalsmithing in my garage workshop. I don’t let myself slow down, except for one indulgence: a Blue Bell vanilla ice cream cup every Friday night, the kind with a small wooden spoon. And now, a second: messaging with Ron.
       He’s never up before ten, which allows me several solid hours of solving client IT security concerns before I get distracted, though my mind normally starts to twitch by 9:30. Today, it’s been twitching all morning, my ears alert, my eyes darting to the notifications corner of my screen until their nerves smart. I’m not sure if he’ll write to me again.
       But the notification comes through at 10:03, with a sound effect like a bubble popping. Dopamine or adrenaline or whatever the hell floods to my fingertips. I assigned that sound to my Instagram notifications because that’s how Ron’s messages make me feel, like a balloon is expanding in my chest, levitating me.  It’s an animal GIF he sends today, which was how it all started, three weeks ago, with his cute username (YouOtterKnow), and the moon-eyed bamboo-eating panda he directed to my DMs. I want to smile at the sleepy Shetland pony he sends me now, but I can’t. I’ll get to that. Him first.
       What do I know about Ron? His real name, for starters, which he says he’s never given anyone on Instagram before. He told it to me one night in a winding discussion starting with what we had for dinner (him, Stouffer’s hamburger casserole; me, sea bass and kimchi and bok choy, which he had never heard of), and ending with our secret childhood friends (him, a girl named Star with strawberry-scented hair; me, a battle-ready dragon with the face of a Labrador). I know that he too works from home, fielding customer service requests for a backpack company. His favorite color is lavender. His favorite emoji is the one with the pink tongue sticking out. He spends most nights in, playing Fortnite or watching Marvel movies, especially anything with Spider-Man. He loves mac ‘n’ cheese (and spells it like that). He says lol instead of ha ha. We don’t have much in common, but I don’t mind. That’s what’s awesome about social media, connecting with people who are different from me. We’re all more similar than we look on the outside.
       What does Ron know about me? My name, Iz, though not my real name, Isabella, which I shed at fifteen, when I decided it was too curly and pretty. It felt like a cruel joke. That my favorite color is black. My favorite movie, when I watch one, is The Wizard of Oz, which is everything a movie should be: glinting, dreamlike, remote. I have a pit bull named Glinda with paws the size of Gala apples. I use the kiss emoji, though he doesn’t know I only started using this recently, to say good night to him. I have nightmares about being crushed by large boulders from nowhere, or I dream nothing. I’ve never had a boyfriend, and I’m 36.
       He doesn’t know what I look like, which became an issue as of last night, when he sent me a picture of himself. I didn’t reciprocate. Neither of us posts pictures of ourselves on Instagram. His account is mostly images captured on his bike rides—a funny license plate, a closeup of a buttery dandelion—and mine is mostly Glinda in various modes of floppy-limbed repose. He didn’t mention that I failed to share a picture in return, but if I don’t send something soon, he will. He has to.
       Or he’ll be too polite and say nothing, but lose interest, with his advance toward closeness stymied.
       Or he’ll think I’m not who I say I am, or that there’s something horribly wrong with me.
       His message last night said I figured we should see each other’s faces. Here’s me. Eeek! He’s smiling in the photo, standing behind a bike, a few gray hairs in his dark goatee, with John Lennon glasses, and hair cut longer in the back. A sleeved arm rests over his shoulder, like he cropped this picture from a larger one, and his right fingertips poise on the bike seat.
       I enlarge his picture on my computer screen, wishing it were higher definition so I could know everything, as if we were face to face. His forearms are strong and sun-burnished, but his chin is weak behind the goatee. I like that he trusts me with his reality. I’m a safe, receptive place. I’ve earned this from him.
       The last picture I took was for a driver’s license, three years ago. I’ve never taken a selfie. When I visit my parents in Ohio twice a year, no one ever takes pictures. I do have a stack of old albums, though, in the blond wood bookshelf in the den, beneath the Basquiat poster and the philodendron.
       I pry open the padded faux leather cover of the last one with a creak. The latest photos are from when I was twelve, four by six digital camera printouts. My cheeks in them are pink and plump and freckled, my hair pale, and shiny enough to have white ribbons where it catches the light. I wonder if I would still be blond if I got more sun. There’s one image I know is in there somewhere, and I find it quickly: twelve-year-old me with gangly legs straddling a bike, the chunky helmet giving me a bubble-headed look, like a Roswell alien. I capture the photo with my phone and message it to Ron. My bike wasn’t as cool as yours, lol.
       There’s one big thing Ron doesn’t know about me: the incident. I don’t call it an accident, because I don’t believe in them. Either everything is an accident or nothing is, and I can’t do anything with the former. I was twelve, and I was playing with our pit bull, Pebbles, on the front lawn, kicking my legs out like an Irish dancer. Maybe it was how I was hopping around, maybe it was a noise from down the street, or the way the light flared off the green plastic sunglasses I won at the fair. Just one of those things. She knocked me down and attacked my face, paw pinning my sternum. It was over in twenty seconds, but I passed out and my mom didn’t find me for half an hour. They put Pebbles down, sons of bitches. I lost my face and my dog.
       Ron responds ten minutes later. Your bike was way cooler than mine. And look at that pretty blonde hair! There’s a blushing emoji at the end.

I know you want to know what I look like. I might as well tell you. My eyes were fine, protected by the glasses. The skin of my lower face is raspberry colored and puckered at the graft lines, with two nostrils where my nose was, and a lipless mouth that parts at an angle, the right cheek permanently pouchy. I think if I could smile, it would make everyone who has to see me feel better. Show them I’m still here inside. Funny how such relatively small changes can make all the difference. A dog or chimp or lion would still look at me and class me as the same as any other human. But a small torsion of the tissue, and most humans act like I’m a monster.
       I don’t hate my face. I’m too used to it to feel that much of anything. But I hate the way other people react. So I work from home, order in my shopping, let Glinda out in the backyard by herself during the day. I don’t really know if I’m an introvert or an extrovert. I don’t avoid people because I dislike them, but because I want to spare them that moment when their eyes skate around, unsure where it’s least cruel to look.

Look at that pretty blonde hair!
       I go back to the photo album and find another picture to send Ron, this one a laughing close-up, sparkly Snow White sticker on my cheek, sunlight beaming off my pale hair. I was never a big princess girl, even as a kid, but I think Ron will like this side of me. He likes things that are cute and pretty, like baby birds with big round eyes. He knows the other side of me too, the side that rides motorcycles and reads Vonnegut. He just connects more to the softer side, so I bring that out. It’s kind of nice to do that, just for him.
       Wow you were such a pretty girl, he says, this time with a rose emoji.

I’ve never been high, but this feeling must act on the same circuit in the brain. The ecstasy when I hear that pop that means he’s messaged me, and I’m so giddy I discover myself laughing at an inane meme about Big Bird until tears stream from my eyes and Gilda cocks her heavy head at me. The heat through my whole body when he says nice things about me: I’m pretty, sweet, adorable, his new best friend. The dark crash when I haven’t heard from him in ten hours, and think he must have moved on, and everything drops out and I’m hollow, yet heavy, bolted to the earth.
       Sometimes I look back through his past messages:
       Aww so cute did you carve that jack-o-lantern?
       I know Ben ‘n’ Jerry’s is the best lol
       Yeah I didn’t go to prom either
       I know it’s so hard to meet genuine people on here tho glad I met you
       I love that little dress on you!
       That’s so cool you’re like a computer genius
       Look how pretty you were I bet all the boys in your class liked you lol
       I force myself to wait until I break for lunch to check his messages, but it’s like half my brain is always in his hands. Just the shape of the letters of his name in my inbox makes my toes curl. Is this what high school was supposed to be like? Maybe it’s pathetic, getting so hung up on someone I’ve never even met, after only three weeks. But I know I’m not a pathetic person. I think I’m just a lonely one.

A few days into this new stage, after I’ve sent him ten pictures, I wonder why Ron doesn’t ask for pictures of me as an adult, or even ask why I keep sending pictures from my childhood. He doesn’t seem to mind, though. We talk about reality TV, and our first crushes, and whether or not there’s a God. And I’m definitely not going to raise the issue if he doesn’t. Of course, I could find other guys to message with if I just catfished them. But what would be the point? Ron is responding to me.
       Nobody has called me pretty since I was a little girl. Back then, strangers would fawn over me at the mall, pet my silky hair. A picture a reporter took of me while strawberry picking was chosen for the cover of a local magazine, my lips reddish, like the berries cupped in my hands. People called me Baby Doll. I tell Ron this, and he loves it. That’s so cute! You were just a perfect little doll.
       I fall asleep after midnight, wondering what his hands feel like, wondering if he’s ever thought the same thing about me.

Hey Baby Doll did you like to swim as a child? Ever go to the beach?
       I send him a picture from when I was seven at the beach, close up on my laughing face, the water a gray blur in the background. He responds three minutes later.
       I wish I could hug you and kiss the top of your pretty head. Maybe even your mouth. There’s an emoji after that with round, surprised eyes and blushing cheeks, like he’s been caught in something.
       I read through his message several times. Even in the fuzz of my hormones, it’s getting harder to ignore the red flags. He doesn’t have a wife or girlfriend and spends so much time talking to me, a distant stranger. He hasn’t asked for any current pictures in lieu of the childhood ones. He fixates on my looks as a child, my hair and face and body. I’m tripping on the attention and companionship I guess I’ve craved for so long—but I’m not stupid.
       He messages again before I can decide how to respond. I hope that wasn’t too much. There’s an emoji of a monkey hiding his face with his hands. I can’t believe I’ve only known you a few weeks Baby Doll I love that I feel like I can tell you anything and you don’t judge me. I haven’t found anyone like you!!
       I’m not a pathetic person, and I’m not a stupid one. But I am a lonely one.
       I find another picture to send him from that beach day, this one showing my swimsuit-clad body sprawled on the sand, fingers and toes stretched to the four corners of the world, mouth wide with glee. Beach baby, lol, I say, though the words feel childish and insipid. How disjointed they would sound if I said them aloud, roughened by my seldom-used voice. I add emojis of a dolphin and a beach umbrella.
       He writes back almost immediately. I wish I could kiss you and touch your cute pretty legs and thighs
       I log out of Instagram.

That night I take to the art workshop in my garage and don my respirator, welding copper into meaningless, tortured shapes. Sparks spit on my arms and hair. His words keep reappearing in remixed fragments.
       I wish I could kiss you
                               I love
                                                       Maybe even your mouth
                   Your cute pretty legs and thighs
       I haven’t found anyone like you
       Can you blame me for continuing to send him pictures of myself as a kid?
       Of course you can. I blame me.
       Odd how when other people don’t see you in a sexual light, they assume you have no sexuality. I went through puberty normally, even after the incident. The pulls and rhythms of my libido go on, like a clock that survived a total apocalypse and keeps tolling every hour, on the hour, for no one. I have all the same mechanisms and desires as anyone else. I want to be enveloped by a man’s warmth. I want to offer him soft lips and hips and hair he can work his fingers into. I want to have children. I did try to adopt once. I made my best case: I was healthy, young but not too young, with a stable career and good income. But the agent demurred when we met, some flimsy excuse about tax brackets and flood plains, all the while flicking glances at my face.
       I want to be in love, and I probably never will, and that crushes me. Just crushes me.
       mouth thighs love wish you
       I leave the garage and go to my bedroom, shutting the door to keep Glinda out, close my eyes, glide my hand between my legs, and imagine I’m in another life.
Hey sweet Baby Doll you haven’t sent me a picture yet today. Smiley face with a tongue, pink rose emoji. I get that same sparkly chemical flood when I see his name, but it’s pricked with a sick, guilty feeling that turns my stomach. Instead of responding, I click to his profile and start digging into his interactions.
       If I have to be a shut-in, I’m grateful that I am one during the twenty-first century. My computer is my world, my portal, my handshake, so I’ve become quite facile with it over time. It’s short work to uncover Ron’s most hidden internet fingerprints, and the ones he didn’t bother to hide. The 11-year-old girls whose Instagram pictures he showers with a confetti of colorful emojis. The child porn sites he torrents off of.
       I see enough to confirm what I already knew, get off the computer, and go to my rowing machine, blasting my music painfully high.
       I hate that people like him exist. I hate that he’s one of them. I hate that the one person who wants to talk to me and see me and touch me is him. I hate that my rage in this moment is eclipsed by the gutting darkness at the thought of ending our relationship and never hearing from him again. I can’t stay in this depth, and go back to the flat wan days alone. My shoulder muscles shriek as I churn and churn the machine. What does any of it matter, anyway? Can’t I allow myself this one soft thing?
       Sorry for making you wait, dear friend, work’s been bonkers, lol! When I send the message, I include a squiggly-eyed emoji, and a picture from my sixth birthday, strawberry ice cream sticky around my mouth and on my pink party dress.
Normally I ride my motorcycle at night, but tonight I run. I want to work for the burn. Glinda’s game; she pounces at the chance for an extra outing, slobber whitening her lips in excitement. We tear up a hill past wooden Craftsman houses, the street torquing hard to the right and out of view, the black pavement glassy with rain. I punish my muscles until my calves sear.
       The incident happens at the top of a street at the same time as we veer onto that street from below. There’s a sound like metal thunder and, from nowhere, a large object slams into my path. But before my mind can process what’s happening, my body has already performed, sailing with impossible precision over the obstacle, and somehow lifting Gilda cleanly over it as well. I land hard, pain spiking my tibias, and turn to see the car fender we just cleared hurtling downhill, smacking the curb, and screeching to a halt at the base of the street.
       Above, a black car sags at an angle into a streetlight, sides caved and warped. Orange light pulsates from within the shattered green glass. There’s a person or people in there, and I don’t worry about them seeing my face and fearing me, or judging me, I take my dog and I take my strong body that propels me past doubt and danger and I run to help.
I’ve compiled a zip file with evidence of your abuses against children and sent it to the appropriate authorities at the Department of Justice, along with your IP address, home address, email address, license plate number, photographs, Social Security Number, and full legal name. You may already have seen that I commandeered your Instagram account and used it to post a warning for minors, and adults, to stay away from you, along with your picture and various internet aliases. Based on your sloppy attempts to cover your tracks, your savviness is limited, so I have no fears of you eluding justice or tracking me down. You don’t know enough about the real me anyway to ever find me. I've never been your Baby Doll.
       I expect Ron to feign innocence, plead excuses, rage against me, but he does none of those things. He responds without emojis, and that notification pop stings because I know it will be the last time I hear it.
       I’m sorry Iz and I can’t blame you I guess I’ve been knowing this would come. I’ve tried more times than you know to change but a leopard can’t change his spots so they say. I thought I had found in you a lady who knew me and didn’t judge me and just loved me for me with the good and the bad but oh well. No one’s ever going to love me once they really see me.
To keep my mind off Ron, and the things he did, and what more I could have done, I keep clean and busy. I put in time on the rowing machine. I make lemon tea and use the discarded lemon halves to scour the sink. But every time I look at my computer, or my phone, it’s like I see a notification with his name appearing, half memory, half willful hallucination.
       Sometimes I have to work to remind myself of his heinous acts. Like now, when I climb off the rowing machine and wipe sweat that’s channeled into the slack furrows above my mouth, and I wonder if it would really have been so bad to just keep talking to him, just to talk to someone. Will there ever be anyone?
       So I sit at my computer and pull up the zip file of evidence, and make myself look at the things he did, and taste the sour revulsion at the base of my throat. I look at the screenshots of his conversations with me, the pictures I sent him and the things he said.
       wish I could kiss
                   anyone like you
       I hate how powerless I am over the elation that still capsizes me.
       I do feel sympathy for Ron. Nobody chooses to be a monster.
       I glance down at Glinda, standing by my desk. She stares up at me with those pretty, dopey eyes. “Sit,” I command, and she obeys. I bend from my computer chair, and shadow her face with my hair, and I close my arms tightly around her throat. She grazes my cheek when she cocks her head as the sound comes through.

©  Sarah Archer 2022

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