By the time you finish the letter, you are sobbing uncontrollably, hot, curative tears that drip, forming a small puddle on your writing slab. The note is truly the most lovely document you have ever received, possibly lovely enough to forgive and excuse P.T. Burningham’s entire lie. A great, soaring empathy rips through you, a love and acceptance for all mankind; you feel enclosed in a collective connective tissue that highlights the innumerable similarities—in fact, identical identities—of all people. What, really, you think, is the difference between P.T. Burningham and I?
Next, you are assaulted with a river of guilt. P.T. Burningham may have lied about his age and location, but aren’t you just as equally to blame, for claiming to be a painter? You fly to the “Reply” button, begin to compose.
But just as you begin your florid and heartfelt reply, a new message appears in your inbox.
P.T. Burningham has sent another e-mail:
Oh, shucks. I must against my better judgment still have some heart in me yet. I am not P.T. Burningham. This whole thing is a scam. That was fun for awhile, wasn’t it? Peace out, girl. Good luck with that painting. Watch your toes on the internet, ok? It’s been real.
Your first thought, at reading the reply, is how terrifying it is to have scaled such emotional vicissitudes in a single day, motionless, merely by staring at a screen. You look at the new words hanging there, so trite and lackluster and dull. You set them against the P.T. Burningham apology letter, wondering how the same person could have composed such divergent extremes of text, particularly in the same day. It occurs to you that, rather than becoming angry, an emotion which has worn out its welcome, you carry on with your reply:
It’s OK. I lied too. I’m not really a painter, but a struggling art historian. Unlike P.T. Burningham, I don’t have any published works. Though I think, after all this, I’m going to try to find one of his books at the library. I get all of my books at the library these days, as I’ve got some serious money problems, and gain most of my income not from teaching painting classes, but from being a server at the local circus, which provides guests five-course meals between acts. It is a terribly demoralizing job, wherein I have to cake my face with makeup and sing and dance after I deliver the food, being sure to avoid the spotlights, which are intended for the real performers, the people the customers paid to see. I haven’t got enough money for furniture, and so sit at a terrible chair that makes my hamstrings ache, and type into a derelict computer on a slab of wood attached to my wall.
I’m hoping my luck will change but, with a liberal arts Masters degree in Art History, there’s a good chance it won’t. This is a cold, hard city, where I am constantly searching for museum jobs on the internet. Did you know you have to go through an interview process just to volunteer at a museum here?? Your e-mails, despite the lies, wound up being one of the best things in my life. Even if P.T. Burningham is not you, his apology e-mail is the loveliest document I’ve ever received, and I’m going to keep it, returning to it for sustenance. I appreciate you telling me the truth, Digital_Suitor. In your words, it’s been real.
Take good care,
You stand up from your writing slab. You back away from the computer. You go to the center of your large, furniture-less apartment, and begin to stretch. You lift your arms over your head, arching lightly, side to side, swaying like a palm tree. The one good thing, you think, about having no furniture, is there’s plenty of room to stretch. As you move your body, working the aches from your hamstrings and upper back, you think, things really aren’t so bad. Even if the Digital_Suitor hadn’t plagiarized P.T. Burningham, your own lie about painting would have come out eventually. It’s always better to tell the truth, and you vow never to lie to anyone, ever, again, unless it’s under the most extraordinary of circumstances, the details of which you’re too tired to at this moment consider. You also vow to take down your profile from [insert dating website here]. Even if P.T. Burningham hadn’t actually been on [insert dating website here], it surely is a breeding ground for that kind of thing, and the last thing you need in your life are more flakes. What you need is to get out into the open, some fresh air, smile at real people, remember that bit about the collective connective tissue, us all being far more similar than different. It’s cliché, you know, but there’s a reason clichés exist: they’re true.
After you’re finished stretching, your body feeling milky and fluid and alive, you return to your writing slab, poised to shut the lid of your laptop. With surprise, you open a new e-mail from the Digital_Suitor:
Hey, it says. Would you like to talk on the phone?
(Read part I of “The Digital_Suitor” here, and part II here.)
August Evans has written in Mexico, Sweden, and Aix-en-Provence, France, where she taught before studying writing at the University of Chicago with Nic Pizzolatto. Her Pushcart-nominated story, “The Mythology of the Wife,” was a finalist for the 2013 Kore Press Short Fiction Award, and appears in the Delmarva Review. Find her in Entropy, HTMLGiant, Melusine, The Drunken Odyssey podcast, and Bad at Sports, a contemporary art blog. Her story, “Figs,” is forthcoming in the January 2015 issue of Isthmus. Find her on Twitter at @lyte_in_august.