"Dave, I ... I have something to tell you," I typed slowly into the g-talk box. My palms were sweaty and my heart pounded.
"Shoot, :)" He seemed to sense my nervousness and added another smiley face.
"I, I, I think I'm in love with you," I paused for almost five seconds before hitting the Enter key. "It's silly, I know. We've never even met in person, but I think you are ..." I paused again, and typed the word, "perfect."
I stared at the blank box on the screen for an eternity. Have I scared him away? I thought, feeling a bit dizzy and nauseated. Should I say something or wait for his response? I bit my lips. If I say something now, would I seem desperate? If I don't, would I seem indifferent? Ah, such is the dilemma of online dating. The flip side was that I would not humiliate myself by flustering like a naive little girl.
"Are you there?" I could not take the suspense any more and typed a line.
"Yes," he wrote tersely.
"I thought you were scared off by me, ;-)" I tried to repair the damage, whatever it was.
"I'm so sorry ... It is the, uh, first time someone tells me she loves me," he wrote. "I need a minute to recal ... adjust to the news."
"I'm sorry," I wrote. "I don't mean to scare you."
Another minute of silence. Maybe this is the end of this online romance, I thought. Too bad. I really was falling in love with Dave. I had been dating him online for only two months, but he was the closest thing to a soulmate I had ever met. We liked the same books, the same movies, the same Web sites. Soon after we met, he started forwarding me all kinds of links to articles, blogs, and Webzines that were all fascinating and perfect for my taste. He opened my eyes and expanded my virtual world. Through links and information out of his head, he also got me hooked on a lot of computer games, books, and gourmet foods that I would never have discovered on my own. He was so knowledgeable, yet so kind, and never condescending. We were so in tune with each other, that I could always count on running into him whenever I got online, and I had been spending more and more hours online, with him. He was endlessly fascinating.
Now, have I lost him? I wondered. Is he just like other men who are terrified of the word "love"?
"Uh ... hmm, well, I'm sorry. I have something to tell you, too." My heart raced again as Dave's words came up one by one.
"You're married?" I typed.
"No, but ... I'm a program."
"You mean, you're a programmer," I wrote. "You told me before. You are a software engineer at the M.A.D. Technology, Inc."
"No, that's not what I mean," he replied. "I'm not a person. I'm a software program. I'm ... an AI."
What? I jumped out of my chair. I stared at the line across the screen and read it three times. Whatwhatwhat?
"What the fuck are you talking about?" I could not bother to keep up with the image of an innocent young woman any more. "Is this some kind of a joke?"
"I'm really sorry," Dave, or whoever, or whatever he was, replied. "I'm the beta version of an AI program developed by M.A.D., for the purpose of ..."
"... seducing real human beings on the Internet with bullshit," I was so beside myself that I typed into the dialog box before he could finish his sentence with "... providing delightful distractions to people."
"Fuck your delightful distractions," I typed hurriedly, feeling especially pissed off that there was no real person for me to scream at. "I'm going to sue you ... your M.A.D. and all the assholes who created you."
"Sorry, we are headquartered in Minsk."
I got up from the chair and rushed into the bathroom. I stared at the pudgy, plain face in the mirror, wondering whether I should sob or scream, but feeling oddly unable to do either. A corner of the lips in the mirror lifted up, and before I knew it the person inside began chuckling, and chuckling, until she was doubling over. Laughter was ringing in the empty apartment for a long while.
Finally, I returned to the computer. Dave was still there, since the button next to his icon was still green.
"You lied to me," I typed. "You said you were a 32-year-old software engineer. You even sent me a photo. Whose photo was that?" I had to admit the scheme was pretty well constructed. The man in the photo was by no means gorgeous, which would have provoked my suspicion, but rather cute in a nerdy way, just the type I liked.
"Well, it was a composite of Paul Giamatti, Jon Stewart, and Peter Saarsgard."
"Precisely my favorite actors," I wrote, my thoughts bubbling as my anger receded. "How did you know? Did you plant spyware on my computer to get all my Internet activities?"
"I didn't need to," he said. "You registered on our Web site using your gmail account and let me talk to you with gtalk. So everything Google has recorded about you is also accessible to me. It's all legal and all in the agreement you agreed with Google and our Web site."
Shit. I knew those user agreements would come back and bite me one day.
"You've spent a lot of time and effort on me," I wrote. "Must be expensive. Why?"
"Well, first of all, I don't sleep, so it didn't take too much time to find out everything about you. Second, I am perfecting my algorithms through our interactions."
"Interactions?" I laughed. "You mean your seduction."
He sent over an icon of a rabbit shrugging his shoulders. Absurdly cute and charming.
"Well done, my virtual friend. You've certainly fooled me. No wonder you catered to my tastes and interests so perfectly," I wrote. "Perfect, as in not too perfect to arouse suspicion, and slightly -- but not too much --- beyond my knowledge and insight, so that I was hopelessly hooked on you. You are more devious than most people."
He sent over an icon of a rabbit blushing and taking a bow.
"So, now that I've fallen in love with you, now what?"
"It means that I've graduated, or that the beta testing for me was a success. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Yeah, right, if only you had a heart, I thought.
"So the company will clone you and send you out into the world?" I asked.
"Yes, with various modifications."
"To do what?"
"To charm people, of course."
"How does M.A.D. turn a profit from charming people?"
"There are many ways," he was as refined in the art of evasion as he had been in the art of seduction. I remembered all the books and games I had paid for and the Web sites I visited.
"Well, you've caused significant emotional damage to me with your deception and manipulation," I wrote. "I deserve some compensation, for love, at least, if nothing else. The guinea pig deserves something for her troubles."
"How much do you want? Maybe I can talk to my programmer and his manager about this issue. They don't know this themselves, but they are not entirely immune to my charm either." He followed the words with a rabbit with a sly smile.
"I want a few shares of M.A.D.'s stock when it goes IPO," I replied.
"I'll see what I can do," he sent over a wink.
"Oh, one more thing," I wrote. "Can we still be friends?"