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The Virtual Driveway

I saw them both online at the same time, and I just wondered, were they going at it or what?
--Woman overheard in a Larchmont bar, June 1998

Obsessive love affairs used to require at least one or two driveway scans toward the end, a quick spin around the block just to see if the one that’s getting away came home last night or stayed out with the one that’s cutting in. This practice has been in effect since cars were invented, for sure, and it’s been applied so universally that Don Henley immortalized it for pop posterity in "Boys of Summer" ("I’m driving by your house/Oh no, you’re not home" — oooh, can’t you just feel the pang?). This isn’t stalking. Unless you’re a real sicko, the adventures never extend beyond one or two anxiety-filled nights, particularly in Los Angeles, where a fact-finding mission often requires negotiating drunk-filled traffic jams for 10-mile trips at odd hours of the morning. The post-breakup drive-by is more like a funeral, a difficult but necessary coming-to-terms with reality. You can’t accept death until you see the body.

Now, however, Internet technology has made breaking up a romance, just like writing a screenplay or keeping in touch with your uncle, much less laborious. If you’ve managed to date someone sufficiently wired, you’ve probably figured out how to find your ex online, and there are so many ways: Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is among the oldest; the Internet’s "finger" command the simplest; ICQ ("I seek you") and AOL’s Instant Messenger service the most manageable. On the other hand, as one might expect in these double-edged times, technology has also made it harder to split, for the same reason: Scanning the cyber driveway is ever so much more convenient, and, well, we all know what your therapist would say. If you’re going to move on, you have to cut that stuff out. Confession time: The first romance I had involving e-mail was with someone on CompuServe, which in those days was a last bastion of online privacy. Finger, which returns a designated user’s last login, didn’t work on CompuServe, and his e-mail address was a long string of digits@CompuServe.com, which I never committed to memory. He dumped me; I deleted his e-mail address, drove by a couple of times and got over it. It was the second one that got me into trouble. Not only was this guy online, he was on the same online service as I am: He had a shell account on Netcom. Finger worked fine, even after Netcom disabled its finger server to the outside world when spammers started using it to harvest new victims. Being on the same system, we could finger each other like mad, and even find out what the other was doing. "I fingered you on Netcom," he wrote me one day; I guess I was supposed to be flattered. Truth be told, I saw him doing it. I also saw him e-mailing another woman I knew he was chasing. So there. You might think that the mere fact of seeing that someone is using his modem would offer information so limited it’s useless, but when you really know someone, the knowledge is as telling as the empty driveway. If he came online by 6 a.m., I knew he’d been home all night; if he’d logged in a couple of hours earlier, he’d had insomnia, which I interpreted as an encouraging sign that he was stewing. An absence from the Internet all day meant he was slogging through a lot of work; his presence in the early afternoon made me wonder if he’d been fired. I’m sure he had his own system of hacking me; whenever I was gone for long stretches, he’d convey his suspicions. ICQ, a program with which people, supposedly friends, can track each other across the Internet, and AOL’s Instant Messenger, which lets you find each other when you’re getting along and hide when you’re not, are much less invasive, but present their own sets of problems. Jerry Seinfeld once remarked that breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine — you have to rock it back and forth a few times before it falls over; and IM’s flexibility leads to a lot of demonstrable schizophrenia while you’re in the rocking-back-and-forth phase. You take each other off your buddy lists, block each other, go out for a postmortem coffee, end up in bed and put each other back, only to repeat the cycle all over again. It’s romantic, in a way. I knew I was almost over him when I stopped looking for him online, but I really knew I was over him when I blocked him from seeing me. Just as Jennifer Kaye Ringley of JenniCam fame told This American Life ’s Ira Glass that when she’s away from her camera, she feels lonely, the practice of observing each other in cyberspace, and being observed, is most of all a way of staving off loneliness, of putting off the inevitable separation, an act of longing no less poetic than that glance at the drive way as you pass your ex’s block, but one that may not ever sound so good in a song.


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