In Pixels and In Health
by JULIALICIA CASE
We got married, and then, immediately, my husband moved to Illinois, where he slept on an air mattress and tried to describe to me the aroma of the soy factory. It smells delicious, and then it smells like burnt dog food. I moved to Texas, where I developed a fascination with roadkill and with the geckos that lived inside the walls of my house. We’d just finished graduate school, and we wanted to be professors, wanted to teach at universities. We had wanted these things longer than we had wanted to be married.
In Texas, I worked from early in the morning until late at night, and every flat surface disappeared under layers of books and paper. While I discussed sonnets and citation with my students, my cell phone buzzed with my husband’s voicemail messages. We whispered phone intimacies in hallways outside of department meetings, or while rushing from the parking lot to office hours. My students’ essays accompanied me to airports and across state lines. I returned them ringed with the condensation from plastic airplane cups, dusted with the salt of complimentary peanuts.
My husband and I spent evenings watching the same television program in different states, phones pressed to our cheeks, the keypads indenting themselves onto our faces. My husband described the essays his students wrote about World of Warcraft, and I tried to imagine it, a world where you could gather together the virtual selves of everyone you’d ever met.
We’d both grown up with Atari and Nintendo, and I can still recite, like a poem, the locations of every Super Mario Brothers warp zone. But our interest in online gaming grew out of frustration, out of the simultaneous laugh tracks that were never quite synchronized over our cell phones. People called it WoW — an exclamation. When we bought the game, the sales clerks at Walmart scribbled their realm names on scraps of paper, offered us their virtual gold.
My husband chose to play a rogue; he wanted to be fierce and to steal things. I finally settled on a druid, which could turn into a panther, a bear, a tree, a cheetah, or a moonkin, and thus offered the reassurance of further choices. The first night, we met in Teldrassil forest, surrounded by tall, stately trees with purple leaves. Outside, our worlds smelled of soy and dead animals, but on our computers, we could hike through the forest without ever seeing a single sheet of paper.
In the game, we did many things that we’d never done together in real life. We spent evenings fishing on the beach at sunset. We learned to make spice bread and basted boar ribs, to weave bandages and tend to each other’s wounds. We battled kobolds and outlaws; we brought ruin to entire colonies of iridescent murlocs.
In the beginning, I think we were as intimidated by the game as we were by the concept of marriage. We were afraid of the auction house, and consequently, we were poor. We were afraid of joining a guild, and consequently we had no one to explain the game to us. We were afraid of grouping with other players, and consequently we spent a lot of time wandering the landscape as dead spirits searching for our bodies. We spent hours trying to beat five-player bosses with only two of us, and those rare successes — the pirates, the hydra — are some of my favorite stories from our marriage.
When I finally moved to Illinois, I wondered if that would be the end of our virtual life together. Suddenly we could spend our free time watching reruns of 21 Jump Street; we could argue, in person, about whether to make dinner or just go out. We could try to improve our watercolor painting skills, and clear the paper from the table to make room for Settlers of Catan. In our Illinois town, “For Sale” signs hung like flags in front of rows of empty houses; winter came and the wind blew garbage cans down the streets.
I was surprised at the way our new togetherness made us braver. In the real world, we compiled our bank accounts, and presented one another with honest tallies of our own frightening debts. In our game, volcanoes erupted, lands flooded, but rather than end our monthly subscriptions, we took on the auction house and the dungeon-finder. I watched my husband poison enemies, and I learned to harness the spells of the moon and the sun. We found we were reluctant to give up those parts of one another, to relinquish those elements of ourselves.
We joined a guild, and our game-world erupted with people. A warlock and a mage led our raids, and explained about add-ons and gear enchantments. A warrior and a shadow priest mocked my damage-per-second, while a death knight encouraged me to “just chuckle at the drama.” I began to recognize the voices of the strangers on our headsets, learned which California burger chain the paladin preferred, heard the Canadian shaman’s opinions on Deadliest Catch. We spoke to these people weekly, more often than to our own families.
I began to see, too, how the faces of our co-workers, the other professors at our university, were simply mirages, disguises for avatars: draenei, worgen, orcs. I learned that I could whisper the names of dungeons, and people would reveal themselves. Inspired by only a few carefully-chosen phrases, our co-workers would divulge, in addition to their academic research on Mark Twain or youth voting processes, a dedication to another kind of scholarship, a deeper self-definition, perhaps a priest, perhaps a warrior.
Now, at dinners with friends, I pick at my shrimp salad and talk about books, or the things I’m writing. We all discuss the articles we’re working on and the conferences we’re attending, but inevitably the evenings grow toward a discussion of weapon tiers, toward revelations of past servers and past guilds. At last year’s faculty Christmas party, I found myself in the middle of a heated debate, not about the promise of raises or the embarrassing campus technology, but about the upcoming game expansion, and the challenges of competing with the young incoming players who feel about their game controllers the way we feel about our own hands.
My husband was recently awarded a grant to teach abroad, and as he posted the news on Facebook, he told me, “What I really want to post about is how I finally assassinated Creed the Dragonkin last night, alone, after three hours of trying.”
Sometimes when my husband folds laundry, I am struck by the flicker of pixels, the snap in his wrists that betrays his rogue penchant for backstabbing and disemboweling. Sometimes I imagine myself calling down burning stars from the sky.
I am, admittedly, new to marriage, but I am not new to imagination. We parade our dog in the same circular loops through the neighborhood; we labor over our predictable grocery lists. We’ve made no vows about the mouse and the keyboard, but we anticipate, as fearlessly as we can, the illusions of who we are and what we will become. Now when my husband and I look to the white of the winter Illinois sky, we both sometimes imagine the dwarven snowfields of Dun Morogh. We flicker in and out of our pixilated world, even as a train whistles, low and long, and the neighbors wave from their windows. The fragrance of soy wafts over all of us.
Julialicia Case is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Decatur. This is her first appearance in these pages.
"Give Me Something (demo)" - Scars on 45 (mp3)
"Loudest Alarm" - Scars on 45 (mp3)
"Heart on Fire" - Scars on 45 (mp3)