Early in the summer after his senior year of high school, my son Jake is sitting at his computer, as usual. He’s playing his favorite game, World of Warcraft, online with the usual bunch of buddies, including the guy I call “Austin” because, well, he’s from Austin. That’s all I know about him, but I hear his voice every night, Texas-flecked and disembodied, floating out of Jake’s computer speaker. He’s so omnipresent that I had to give him a name. He’s so omnipresent that I feel I should set a place for him at dinner. He’s a ghostly presence spouting a running commentary on the game and occasionally weighing in on other matters: the latest earthquake, the new Twilight movie, how he could really go for a burrito. He’s like an imaginary friend for Jake, only he’s actually there.
I’m waiting for Jake to finish his game, because at 10 o’clock I’m supposed to Skype with his sister Marcy, who’s in Mexico, studying abroad. It’s the second semester she’s spent in Mexico, actually, and because we learned from the first one how unbelievably, incredibly expensive phone calls to Mexico are, we now communicate only via e-mail and Skype, a free computer videophone service. Or, rather, we don’t communicate. I’m a good and faithful e-mailer, sending something off to Marcy every few days — just brief notes mentioning whatever gossip I have, linking to news stories she’ll like, and asking questions, because I’m insatiably curious about what it’s like to live in a foreign country, since it’s not something I’m ever going to be brave enough to do.
I don’t think Marcy reads my e-mails. She e-mails back maybe once every two weeks — a couple of sentences at most, readily sprinkled with the most annoying phrase in the English language: “haha!” (Is everything a joke?) She never answers any of my questions. And she usually only writes because she needs me to do something: call her academic adviser at her college, Dicklenburg, to see if she’s approved for next semester’s courses, say, or put another hundred in her bank account. I find this enormously frustrating. It isn’t conversation; there’s no sense of connection, no give-and-take.
That leaves Skype. And while it is, undoubtedly, a technological marvel that Marcy can sit in her bedroom in her host family’s house in the Yucatán and I can sit in front of Jake’s laptop in my living room and we can talk with each other while Jake sits on the sofa and fumes because he can’t play World of Warcraft with Austin until we finish, Skype is a lot less satisfying to me than a simple phone call. It’s terribly distracting to be able to see Marcy shift and scratch and twirl her hair. I can’t focus on what I’m saying; I find myself fixating on the ceiling fan whirring behind her, or that something — gad, is it a lizard? A giant cucaracha? — inching up the wall of her room. Once, while we were Skyping, Marcy’s host mom brought her a sandwich. I could see her from her knees to her shoulders; she gave a little wave. I couldn’t see her face. If Marcy and I had been telephoning, it wouldn’t have bothered me that I didn’t know what her host mom looked like. Now, though, it does.
Marcy loves Skyping. She’ll stay on for hours, twirling her hair while I stare at her on-screen, and while I stare at me, too, in the smaller, inset square that shows what I look like to her, which is old and tired and utterly unlike my cheery, vibrant e-mail self. I hate Skype.