Writing Exercise: Absent

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The assignment: Absent. Construct a character who is not present. You have many options here: people may talk about this character before meeting him, or after meeting her; you might choose to examine what this character owns, how he or she lives, under what conditions; you might use indirect approaches, like letters or documents that attest to the existence but not presence of the person. How do we know of people? Examine the ways we build characters in our minds and in our social environments before and after we meet them.

“So what does he do?” Anna asks, pouring two more glasses of wine. Olivia scans her laptop screen, scrolling quickly through the profile.

“It says he’s in sales.”

“That’s vague.” Anna comes back to the couch, and sets the wine glasses on the coffee table.

“Seriously, is he selling cars or drugs?” Olivia reaches for her glass and takes a long sip.

“Does it matter? Who wants to marry a salesman? They’re so smarmy. Who’s next?” Olivia clicks back to her inbox, which is filled with dispatches from men she’s never met. She’s not sure if all women get this many messages on dating sites, or if she’s just a catch — though she assumes it’s the former. She clicks on a message from someone with the screen name “Stallion69” and is not surprised when all it says is, “Hey ur pretty.”

“Jesus Christ,” Anna mutters. This is at least the fifth message they’ve looked at tonight, and the third comprised of less than five words. “You’d think they could up with something more interesting to say… even if it’s filthy…”

Olivia does not bother to click through to his profile. She already knows what she’ll find. This man’s profile will include three things:

1) A picture of himself in a white undershirt, taken in a bathroom mirror with his cell phone
2) A reference to being Italian and proud of it
3) The words “I like to work hard and play harder”

Of course there will be more information than this, but none of it will matter. Her heart (and vagina) will close up shop the minute she lays eyes on the poorly lit bathroom picture. By the time she gets to the “work hard and play harder” bit, she will actively dislike him. When will people learn that being Italian is not a personality trait? Just once she’d like someone to write, “I’m half Lithuanian, one quarter Swedish, and one quarter no one cares.”

“Ew, look at that guy!” Anna points at the avatar of one of Olivia’s suitors. Olivia considers him for a moment, thinking she might know him. Then she just realizes he looked a lot like Uncle Fester from The Addams Family. Poor bastard.

“Is there something about the internet that makes guys think they have a chance with you? Or are they just extra brave, because honestly… In what world would I date that guy?”

“I blame TV. There’s always at least three sitcoms with fat husbands who have hot wives.” Anna guzzles the last of her wine before bringing the bottle back over to the couch. She refills her glass and tops off Olivia’s.

“Wait, wait, wait!” Anna flaps her hands and then points at a message. “Open that one,” she commands. It’s from “YoungStNick.”

Hey there! I hope your week is off to a good start. I have to confess, I’m messaging you from the world’s most boring meeting. Thank goodness for iPads. Anyway, I just had to say hello to a girl who likes Shipyard beer, corgis, and Tosh.0. Uh oh… gotta go. The guy next to me is nodding off and drawing unwanted attention our way! — Nick

“Well, he sounds promising,” Anna says. Olivia clicks on his avatar and they both wait in silence for his profile to load. They drink their wine, and immediately go to his pictures when the page loads.

“He’s actually pretty cute,” Olivia says. His profile picture was one of those group shots taken in a dark room. No one looks good. But his other pictures were more promising. In one he is standing by a river wearing the hip-waders of a hardcore fisherman, but the confusion of his face says, “Help! I don’t think I can get out of these things!” In the next photo he is sitting on a deck, a fat labrador passed out beside him. According to the caption, it’s his family dog. And in his last picture he’s in an office, wearing the gray slacks and blue shirt that comprise the uniform of corporate America. Despite the cubicles and business casual attire he is smiling so widely it’s contagious. In the words of the great Tyra Banks, he is “smising” and Olivia likes it.

“Keep going,” Anna says and Olivia complies, scrolling down through Nick’s profile. They discover that he works for a state representative, and lives with a roomate in an old house — that may or may not be haunted — in Hartford.

Olivia looks at Anna and says, “Maybe the roomate is cute…and single.” Anna just waves her off, tips her glass to her lips, and then looks back at the screen.

Suddenly, Olivia realizes that it’s now Friday, four days since Nick first messaged her. She has an irrational fear that he is no longer interested, or perhaps has found himself swept up into a committed relationship since Monday afternoon. After all, a man who volunteers with Habitat for Humanity and also loves It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is hard to find. Of course, if most of the girls on this site are as awful as most of the men, she probably didn’t have much to be worried about.

“Let’s write back to him,” Anna says. Olivia fidgets nervously, running her hands through her long hair and putting it up into a ponytail, as if to signal she is ready to get to work. If her shirt had sleeves, she would roll them up. She finishes off the wine in her glass before going back to Nick’s message, and hitting the reply button.

They sit there for a moment staring at the blank screen. Olivia sighs, her fingers hovering over the keyboard. She starts to type but then deletes what she has written. Anna reaches for the wine bottle but finds that it is empty.

Olivia is looking at the blinking cursor when Anna says, “I think we’re going to need another bottle.”

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