One summer, a long, long time ago, I came back to New York from Paris to work two hostess jobs in Manhattan while staying at my parents’ house in the suburbs. The primary reason I was back to sweat out a New York summer in high heels and little black dress was to make enough money in tips to buy my first computer by the end of the summer and take it back to Paris for my first year of university. I had my eye on this racy little PowerBook 165.
If you want to know what year that was, look it up.
The secondary reason I was in New York for the summer was to make enough money to buy this computer in order to help my boyfriend (an American academic in Paris) edit and type his book about the unsung hero of knot theory, Peter Guthrie Tait, thereby lording it over all the other women in his life (not ignoring the symbolism of owning something called a PowerBook). I hoped to make them go away, either to buy and learn to operate their own computers (which would have earned a measure of admiration from me), or to find another boyfriend to share. Yes, I was doing the devoted and in-denial girlfriend to the esoteric genius thing.
Peter Guthrie Tait
This was not the first time I’d resorted to technology to save a relationship. My first answering machine had been bought in the service of not missing a single call from the French sex maniac photographer I had been obsessed with a few years previously. Soon after buying this computer, always on the edge of technology in the name of my hot pants, I would buy France’s first proto-cell phone, called the Bi-Bop, which was very like Captain Kirk’s “communicator” in both size and the sound it made when you opened and shut it.
But this was a computer, the big time. Not everyone had one at the time. The Powerbook was one of the first laptop computers to cost less than three grand. (It cost me $1,970.) I was part of an elite. Yes, I enrolled an early Macintosh laptop in the service of lust, and typed, retyped, proofread and retyped again this man’s entire book just to be near him. He was that good in bed. Or I was just that young and oversexed. But don’t sell me short. I learned a lot about knots, knot theory, topology, canonic logic and Lacanian psychoanalysis. All of which is the kind of knowledge a few people find valuable. All you have to do is find them. You can usually recognize the men by the bandages on their fingers, and the women by the corncob pipes in their mouths.
I also learned a lot about computers. My genius boyfriend, like many people over ten years older than me, was very superstitious in his approach to computers. It must have been his steely self-restraint – said self-restraint manifesting itself mostly in his refusal to wash his pants more than once every six months – that kept him from sacrificing chickens to it. When I had only his little wheezing PowerBook 100 to work on, he would make sure I “Apple + S’ed” at least once after every sentence I typed, because he was sure if I didn’t his entire book would disappear the next time his computer crashed, and that it would disappear not only from the computer but also from all the “diskettes” he had duplicates of it on. And it crashed a lot. I mean it crashed a lot when he was using it. When I was using his computer (before buying my own), it was pretty well-behaved. If he heard me typing too quickly on it, Genius would get up and stand, perspiring over me, urging me not to make the Aztec volcano god inside the computer angry. To be fair, his computer had less memory than is required to store one typical photograph these days, and it used most of it just to keep itself awake.
When I came back to Paris with my own laptop, my beloved Genius set up a desk in his room for me, and we’d sit at our respective desks, and type away between the news, dinner and sex. I knew all the commands, and had even found all the “Easter eggs” in my own computer, and could wow my little Genius with my skills, sometimes doing so with his text open and unsaved in MacWrite Pro (who remembers that?), just to add that extra thrill. I felt like I was the technological Frida Kahlo to his technological Diego Rivera. It was the relationship I’d always dreamed of.
The only problem was that for a genius who spent all his time doing equations, he still had a lot of time for women. You almost had to admire that in him. Of course, being one of the women concerned, I didn’t admire it at all. What was it about him? Was it the way he played the guitar and sang “Unforgettable” to me, blues style? Was it the way he seemed slightly insane, talking about the way people measure each other by how long their belts are while “sliding pieces of raw meat between each other’s lips”? Was it his inability to resist me or his ability to teach me how to dissect a Borromean knot? The more I think about it, the more I think it was just sex, plain old sex, and thank goodness I got a computer out of the whole affair. I mean, look at this drawing I did while with him, which there was no reason to draw in flesh-tones other than that I was probably trying to subtly seduce him:
For all the good it did me! He left me for an Italian with connections. Connections in the world of Lacanian psychoanalysis. (And also an umbilical connection to the child he fathered, I learned later.)
But my sturdy little gray angel stuck with me through the hard times. It survived terrible falls, recovering from apparent death within 24 hours every time, whirring back to life for me in my garret with the crazy lady next door screaming at me to “shut up, you American whore” as I sang for joy and hugged it. It was there for me when my Genius wasn’t. (It was there for me when my brains weren’t!) Yes, it was sometimes fickle and would crash for no apparent reason (other than having been dropped a few times?), either completely freezing, or flashing that terror-inducing image of a bomb before going black and hiding whatever I was working on in the Trash, in a file called “Recovered Files” which I’d find by accident, after a good, hysterical sobfest.
It had more power over me than my boyfriend did. And rightly so.
After me and my Genius broke up, I bought myself a modem for the PowerBook and got my first Earthlink account which I promptly deployed in an email affair with a pretty German boy from Cologne, who turned out to be living with a girlfriend who was amongst the first girlfriends on Earth to cry in the next room while her boyfriend conducted a long-distance email affair. Heretofore my torrid communications with a different, more poetic German boy with a blond pageboy haircut and a name that meant “lard” had been conducted by fax, and were articulated by steamy sheets that would roll out at the foot of my bed in the middle of the night up in my little Parisian garret. I’d hear them come in, the humble “ch-ch-chrrrr-ch-ch-chrrr” followed finally by a slash, and I’d wait till morning to swoon over them. They’d fade away after a few years. After that, watching my email slowly download on the computer screen was like watching a Polaroid slowly develop, only slower.
(You laugh, but his faxes were hot stuff.)
My computer was a willing wingman. And it literally had, well, sort of, wings. It had these little swing-out feet that I always thought of as wings. Look at this photo.
Doing my research for my Masters memoir in the National Library of France, I became smitten by a Greek philosophy boy (no, that’s not a typo, he was Greek, studying philosophy) — we girls called all the philosophy PhD’s “philosophy boys,” because they were kind of all alike in that they seemed never actually to sleep with anyone (their girlfriends included), just got us hot under the collar talking about it for weeks at a time. The only reason I can think of for my infatuation with this guy was that he was kind of slimey-looking (the opposite of my Genius, who was straight out of a Rockwell painting, complete with bow-tie). He had gained weight while studying, and his pants — worn-thin, faded, black stretch pinstripe jeans — had become extremely tight on him, taking the guesswork out of any conjecture regarding his shlong. Every time he stood up, which was invariably while facing in my direction, there it was, under the slightly puppy-like (in that it was furry, soft and round) overhanging belly. He had a somewhat feminine face framed by middle-parted long black hair and unevenly distributed stubble, and whenever I said hello to him, he seemed to respond in Greek with: "Ηθος Ανθρωπος Δαιμων.”* No matter what I said to him, that was what seemed to come out. Maybe he was saying, "I have a girlfriend," again and again. (Turned out he did.) But at the time, I took it as encouragement and sat in his vicinity as often as possible.
One day, frustrated that I was getting no further than his Heraclitian babble, I “forgot” to turn the sound off my trusty little PowerBook, and typed randomly very quickly for a few seconds, which resulted in a series of about 20 loud “quacks,” my default “error” sound. The quacks echoed under the vaulted ceiling under which had sat and studied the gravitas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Proust, and other great men, but my Greek philosophy boy never raised his head. I was like, c’monnnn! There’s a duck in here! (In my head, while willing him to turn around and laugh.) But nothing. Finally, he sneezed, and I said, “bless you.” He said thank you. When I told him that Albertus Magnus’ cure for the common cold was to kiss a mule on the nostrils, he began mumbling Heraclitus again, but I didn’t mind. I don’t like to give up on a boy without leaving him something to think about.
You know how I remember all this so well? Because I typed almost all of it into my good friend the PowerBook either from handwritten notes or directly while it was happening. When I decided that I was not going to pursue my doctoral studies after a year of doctoral studies, my gray friend was there for me, as always. I continued to go to classes because they were free. Who in their right mind turns their nose up at a free education, even if it's only in Medieval Anthropology with a speciality in menstruating nuns and non-menstruating saints? And as long as I went to my classes, I had my pass into the sumptuous reading room of National Library of France, and access to manuscripts and rare books and philosophy boys galore. Here is a sample of the kind of thing I used my computer to write about at the end of that last, nostalgic semester:
He was all in white, and smelled like fresh milk. He fed me raw fish for lunch, and I bought him a coffee. We discussed the connection between the heart’s natural catastrophes and a vector leading to dusty manuscripts. He took me behind the bookshelves that made a wall of the Patrologia Latina, and interlaced in the legs of upside-down stacked wooden chairs, he showed me the best of the Acta Sanctorum. When we decided to go back to our respective desks (174 and 338), as we parted, he, like a well-oiled state-of-the-art carpenter’s tape measure whose release had been shifted by the light pressure of an invisible fingertip, retracted with a sudden inward roll and a silent snap. Two rows away, there he sat, coiled over a book and a computer, while Saint Teresa explained to me the difference between union and rapture.
Good old Mac.
Thank you, and RIP Steve Jobs.
* “Ethos anthropos daimon”: “Man’s character is his fate.” Or, “Go away, I have a girlfriend.”
Previously: The Evolution of Ape-Face Johnson.
Carolita Johnson's cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland, as well as in books like The Rejection Collection 1, The Rejection Collection 2, and Sex and Sensibility, and her illustrations appear in The New Vampire's Handbook and The Power of No.