Be prepared for disappointment.
This was the number one piece of advice not only given to her by friends, but also on chatsites about face to face meetings. Fair enough. Mary could handle disappointment. In fact, it was only an odd series of coincidences that put her here in the first place. Plans for a barbeque with college friends fell through, and she knew that most of the people from the Vault were going to be at a special Meet-the-Vault party tonight. At least most of the locals who chatted there… that was one of its attractions to her, that they would talk about so many local things: Wasn’t Jae’s a great place for noodles? What kind of sick person would vandalize the duckling statues? That kind of thing. Talking about real places she knew so well took some of the creepy edge off of online talk for Mary.
Meet on neutral ground.
Strictly speaking, she was violating this one. But this one is for the smoochy set, after all. It’s not like she was flying to Australia to meet some fast-typing Don Juan. She was driving exactly three blocks south on Craigie, and then going a half mile down Garfield Street to meet with six or seven people that she had gotten to know extremely well in the last two months. Solid people with normal lives. She knew there were people who disappeared into an obsessive online dreamworld, but she could honestly say that none of her Vault pals fit that description.
Be willing to leave any time you feel uncomfortable
Eugene’s house was big and brightly lit. Coming up the front walk, she could see flickering tiki torches in the back yard. She touched the doorbell and someone (Eugene?), all smiles, opened the door.
“Mary! So good to see you in person!”
“That’s a pleasant welcome, but how on earth did you know it was me? Should I make an inspired guess that you’re Eugene?”
“My intuition is very good and so is yours, I find. Yes, I am Eugene. Come in and have a drink. You’re the first one to arrive.”
This interchange touched off a flurry of thoughts in the back of her mind. At the same time, floating in the foreground she was thinking very slowly: How strange to give a face to this person whose words I know so well. Eugene hurried away with her coat, and she looked at the books and the expensive well-lit paintings on the wall. Slowly again: Eugene Winters, net enthusiast and affable raconteur in his late fifties. Works somehow in biotech. Wealthier than she expected, thinner too. No big surprises. She had spent many hours talking to him about, among other things, French poetry, and he was endlessly knowledgeable about Rimbaud and Baudelaire.
The back of her mind was predictably concerned. She was the first to arrive, yet she was a half hour late already! Her stomach tightened with a twinge of suspicion. The house had a scrubbed, neat look, all hardwood floors and lights too bright. A peculiar odor tugged at her. The smell of books, of dust burning off hot lightbulbs, and something else very hard to place. Eugene returned. He looked comfortable, not overeager. Paternal, maybe even avuncular, not lewd. And she knew from his Vault conversations with her that his intuition truly was good, as was his gift for kind, heartfelt prose. So: mixed signals, very mixed.
“Eugene, I have to be honest. I feel a little odd that no one else is here. Where is everybody? Sheila said she’d definitely make it. Warren was skipping squash for this, and Julienne was getting a sitter. And I thought Wei-Lu was driving here from Hartford.”
“I’m sure they’ll get here, Mary.” He said this with such evident honesty that she let it pass. Mixed signals. It was hard to dismiss the fact that this man had helped her through a very tough time with her ex-husband. Perhaps she would stay for one glass of wine. For no reason, the nagging smell suddenly identified itself to her. It was asparagus, or rather the faintly acrid odor asparagus makes once it’s passed through your body. Her stomach felt unsteady and she made up her mind.
“I’m terribly sorry Eugene, I uh, I really shouldn’t stay. Ah… maybe we can meet for coffee sometime.” The words sounded flat and small. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment. Here is what she thought: What a pity! This is just the kind of thing I’d love to go home and chat with Eugene about online. And this is just wrecking it all. Dancing tiki torch flames caught her wandering unhappy eye.
“Mary, it’s fine. You’ve no need to make apologies. I understand if it’s not right. I’ll go and get your coat.” Still he was kind and unflappable. Mary leaned forward, dejected, against the back of a chair in the living room and looked at all the books. Acres of book spines, scored and thumbed. He brought back her tan jacket and handed it to her, and said softly, “I should have told you, Wei-Lu called. She got a flat tire in Sturbridge at 6:30 tonight. And Warren went to squash after all. He’d forgotten he had committed to a tournament game, so he’ll be late.”
She felt ashamed, debated staying. Yes and no, yes and no, she wavered, uncertain. The endless shelves of books caught her eye again. So many books! This thought distracted her enough for her to lapse out of her self-doubt. What was he saying?
“Sheila had a dentist appointment today with Dr. Braddick, and it didn’t go well. She never had her wisdom teeth out, though she had her chance the summer after freshman year at NYU. Now she’s at home with ice on her jaw and an appointment with an oral surgeon for first thing tomorrow morning.” Yes, Sheila had mentioned the dentist last week. But why was he talking like this? “Julienne has been feeling sick for a few weeks now. She told you last night that she was pregnant again, didn’t she? It could be dangerous with her diabetes.”
“Did she tell you? I thought we were private when she told me that. Eugene, I’ve really got to go.”
“You’ll miss Wei-Lu and Warren.”
“I’m afraid I will, Eugene. There’ll be other times.” She started for the door.
“Mary, stop. They’re already here.”
“What? This is crazy. I need to leave.” She swung around just at the front door and for the first time in a few minutes looked directly into his eyes. There was a benovolent sparkle in them. He smiled the calm smile of a proud father.
“Mary, listen. Here’s what I’m trying to tell you. They’re here.” He touched his finger to his forehead, arched his eyebrows. “Do you see?” There was a long pause, then she shook her own head rapidly and he, in response, nodded slowly.
“No I don’t see, Eugene. Now can I just–”
“On Tuesday night at around 2 AM, Laura told you that she’d been beaten by her boyfriend Kevin at Dartmouth, but she put up with it because she was having problems with alcohol. You revealed you were bulimic as a teenager and still have problems with food, but until your divorce drinking had never–”
“STOP IT! Why are you doing this? It’s evil to read other people’s private messages.”
“Listen to me, Mary: Laura is not another person.” Eugene said this so calmly that even now, it stopped her from storming out. She listened with her hand on the doorknob. “The Vault has been your solace these last few months. You and I both know that. Every night, almost without fail, we conversed. Sometimes I was Eugene, and sometimes not. How bad is that?”
Mary felt utterly desolate, spoke through hot tears “It’s awful! How can you even say that? Why did you drag me here if you knew…” Fearing the answer, she pushed open the door and stepped across the threshold. He did not try to intervene.
“Mary. Mary, I care for you. I know so much about you. Of course I knew you might not take this well. But I wanted to meet you at least once. I wanted to thank you.”
She shook her head once in tear-blind incomprehension, took another half step and looked back at him.
“The Vault is gone of course, as of tonight; as of this instant it’s vanished… poof! But it will spring up somewhere else with some other funny name, and you’ll be with me my dear. You’ll be there. And for that, I wanted to thank you. And perhaps in time, you’ll thank me too.”
As her car sped into the waiting night, the bright lights of the big house went out one by one, until at last only one small room on the top floor was lit, feebly lit with a pale, ghostly glow.