Today I am so pleased to welcome author Ingela Bohm to Joyfully Jay. Ingela has come to talk to us about her latest release, Not Safe For Work. She has also brought along a copy to give away. Please join me in giving Ingela a big welcome!
Love in the Age of Virality
What would you do if your best friend went on Facebook and falsely claimed to be in a relationship with you? That’s what happens to Jakob in Not Safe For Work – on his birthday, no less.
Waking up to a dreary November day, he gets a cryptic text message from his friend Leo, who’s on a trip to London for a programming conference. The message hints that Jakob should have a look at Tumblr, and when he does, he finds a blog full of steamy stories about the two of them. Leo has even updated his relationship status on Facebook, claiming that he and Jakob are now an item.
Jakob is beyond shocked. He’s never even thought about Leo that way.
Or has he? Well, yes and no. The stories aren’t completely untrue. There are details that Jakob recognizes from real life, but they’re horribly skewed and misinterpreted. So what is really going on here? Is it just a big practical joke on Jakob’s birthday, or is this what Leo really wants? Maybe he’s been secretly in love with Jakob for all these years, and this is how he shows it?
Jakob texts Leo back with desperate questions, but Leo is less than repentant. In fact, he seems to be enjoying it. Of course, Jakob knows that he must deny the rumors, but something makes him put it off. He tells himself that he doesn’t want to make an ass of himself if it is indeed meant as a joke, and also that he needs to read it all to know exactly what he’s denying. But the fact remains: he’s becoming addicted to reading those stories – and perhaps not only for the reasons he thinks.
So the question is, can you fall in love with someone who abuses your friendship like that? At first glance, I would say a very definite ‘no.’ But everyone’s story is different, and love isn’t logical. Shakespeare explores a similar premise in his play Much Ado About Nothing, where Beatrice and Benedick fall victim to their friends’ scheming. At the beginning, the pair seem to have nothing but contempt for each other, but as the play progresses, there are hints at an earlier relationship that they haven’t quite got over. Building on that romantic past, Beatrice and Benedick’s friends set out to convince them both that the other is madly in love with them.
It doesn’t take long for the fake rumor to take effect. Tricked into believing that Beatrice loves him despite her constant jibes, Benedick quickly stumbles into passionate love. Faced with a similar story and with Benedick’s suddenly pleasant manner, Beatrice soon softens too. Maybe it’s human nature: if you know that someone is attracted to you, maybe at least you give them the benefit of the doubt.
But in Not Safe For Work, it’s not Jakob’s friends who play a prank on him, it’s Leo himself. Worse, Jakob isn’t sure if Leo really is in love with him, or if it’s all a sham. To make things even more complicated, everyone around them wants to believe it – and if it’s on Facebook, it must be true, right?
Nowadays the Internet is a bulletin board for people’s love life. Social networks relay information instantly, and distant relatives and old friends might not even know that you’ve met someone if you didn’t post it on social media.
That said, ‘real life’ is often used as an antonym to life online, since we need a phrase to separate what happens in the physical world and what goes on in cyberspace. But where do you draw the line? What is real, and what is not? We pay our bills online, we shop and chat and meet new friends. We all know that the Internet can also be a web of lies, and slander can travel as quickly as the truth, but that doesn’t make life online any less valid.
In Jakob’s case, the line between the real and the imaginary becomes more and more blurred as he’s drawn into the strange, unsettling universe where he’s in love with Leo. The stories even begin to affect him physically. Increasingly confused, he decides to travel to London to confront Leo face to face. But even as he prepares to leave, the stories and his so-called real life seem to align, as if Leo is reading his mind. So if the lie is built on actual facts, how can he tell where real life ends and the fiction begins?
Or to nick a phrase from social media: it’s complicated…
A hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”
I straighten up, blink into the concerned face of Professor Dahlberg. “Uh… sure.”
“You look pale. I thought you were going to throw up right onto your desk.”
“Oh. Sorry. For, um… messing up your class.”
“Don’t be silly. They’re discussing Geerz in there, they’ll be fine.”
I nod, but I don’t really know what he’s saying. My head is still in a fog.
“Someone I can call?”
Christ, he’s insistent. What am I, ten? “No.” I shake my head, even as I think, Yeah, you can call Leo and tell him to… to… What? Delete a picture that can’t be real in the first place?
“So, um…” Dahlberg is watching me, as if expecting something. I don’t know what, and I don’t care. I have bigger problems than the philosophy of science right now. When I don’t react, he clears his throat with an awkward grin. “You don’t happen to have my thumb drive with you?”
I look up, and I can feel myself frowning at him. As if my face belongs to someone else. “Thumb drive?” My voice sounds dull and flat.
“Yes. You borrowed it last time, to copy those PowerPoints…”
“Oh.” I nod wearily. “Yeah. No, I haven’t got it. Sorry.”
He looks disproportionately dismayed.
“I’ll bring it next time,” I promise him, and before he can stop me, I add, “Excuse me,” and head for the loo. It’s the one place I can think of to be alone.
Safely inside, I sit on the lid and just breathe for a minute. When I resurface, I’m suddenly convinced that I just imagined it all. Because it can’t be true. It just can’t. My computer is still in the lecture hall, so I take out my slow fucking piece of shit phone that I gave up on for that very reason, and tap the Facebook icon. My real phone is in London with Leo, getting up to no good, and here I am, barely even able to find out what the fuck is going on.
But Facebook won’t let me in. Suddenly cold with a horrifying premonition, I enter my email address and password, but he page politely tells me there must be some mistake.
It tells me I’m not really me.
Hands shaking, I click myself onto the Internet instead and search for my name online. Through this detour, I make it onto my page, only it’s not mine any longer. I’m visiting as an outsider, but I can still see all the posts. Because whoever hijacked my account has changed the settings to make all my information official. Available for anyone to see.
Even a stranger like me.
My head spins. Someone has gained access to my account. No, wait, not just someone. Leo. Leo with the warped computer game mind, who can think up things sick enough to make your stomach turn. That’s the guy who has my life in his hands. Happy fucking birthday.
Suddenly realizing what all those congratulatory posts were really about, I scan the list of likes, and nearly all of them are for the photo of me and Leo. He’s tagged me in it, but there’s no caption, just a heart. The only two likes that are not for our faux kiss are for a rant I posted yesterday about a sullen bus driver. The rest is all us. The comments, too.
OMG is it true??
Do I hear the patter of tiny feet? Haha…
Goddamn, Jakob, how did you keep this a secret?
Shit man, not you too.
You’re like PERFECT for each other!
I knew it!
Gay and fake, LOL!
I sit there, scrolling through the reactions, all of them variations on a shocked or squeeing theme. Hell, even my mother has posted a happy little chirp. No one is questioning anything, apart from expressing surprise. No one is calling Leo’s bluff. Below the picture is a short notice specifying his changed relationship status, just like Merethe said. And the relationship he’s in is with me.
That’s what she was asking. If Leo and I are a fucking item.
My fingertips hesitate over the screen, white and stiff, aching to post a protest, a firm denial. But I can’t. I quite physically can’t. Not unless I create a new account, with a new email address. A second self.
Fuck you, Leo. I’m not going to play into your hands like that.
Because what if this is all part of an elaborate joke, and I ruin it or embarrass myself by taking it seriously? Like one of those ‘I wiped my arse with my socks’ chain mail things, or ‘I’m going to Portugal,’ and it’s all just PR for some cancer campaign? All done to dupe the dupes, to make people outside the know look foolish. And I’m not a PhD student for no reason. I absolutely hate being made to look foolish. I observe and digest, and then I give my well-formulated response.
Well, except for today, in Dahlberg’s class. I wince briefly to remember. Well, I’m not about to put my ass on the line again. I’m thirty-three fucking years old, and…
No. Wait. I’m thirty-four.
Oh, I know. This is some kind of backwards birthday greeting, the old male ‘instead of a present you’re getting a kick in the balls’ kind of thing. I feel my shoulders fall, my body relax. Yes. Of course. That’s it. Leo is messing with me because it’s my birthday. He could have chosen a better way, or a funnier fucking joke, but there you have it. He’s a goof, and I love him for it. He’s decided to make this birthday count, and he’s expecting me to be a good sport.
I return my stare to the screen, trying to calm down my beating heart and see the funniness of it all. You have to give it to him: it is an expertly crafted fake photo. Anyone would believe it. I look closer, try to see outlines, missing shadows, anything. But I already know that Leo is a master, and I won’t catch him making a mistake. He was hired at eighteen by one of the big ones. Chances are, if you’re wowed by the graphics of a game, he’s the wizard behind it.
I heave a deep sigh, try to gather my thoughts. What do I do now? Call him? Text him? The bright white tiles swirl in front of my eyes. Do I send a good-natured Ha ha, you got me there! or do I just stay silent and play along? I grasp at random thoughts, but none of them contains an answer. My brain is in freefall. I can’t make a decision. I need to talk to someone, get a second opinion.
At once, Merethe’s face appears in my mind. Red-faced and happy, dying to know if it’s all true. But I can’t talk to her again. I just can’t. At this rate, she’ll start asking for a fee. She’s always playing the therapist to my rants. Overwhelmed, I let my head fall into my hand, and my groan echoes against the walls of my cubicle just as someone yanks at the door handle. I shoot out an automatic hand towards the loo roll. Christ, I’m jittery! I need to get out of here, now. See a bit of reality, ground myself. And yes, okay, perhaps talk just a tiny little bit to Merethe. After all, nobody knows me better than she does.
Apart from Leo, of course, but I obviously can’t talk to him.
It’s Jakob’s birthday, and boy is he getting a surprise. His friend Leo has written a sexy blog about the two of them — all untrue, of course. Or is it? Identity hijacked, fake love life laid out for the world to see, Jakob is devastated. He should deny it all, but he can’t stop reading. Soon, he’ll have to confront Leo, but he’s afraid — can there be a tiny grain of truth in those stories?
Ingela Bohm is a sucker for music and words, and whenever the two go together, she’s on board for the long haul. Every story she tries her hand at turns into a love story at some point, but that’s just her sentimental nature making itself known. She occasionally pretends to be a human being (as long as there are no dogs present), and she spends an obscene amount of time in front of really well-made TV series, trying to riddle out how the hell the bastards do it. Her current projects include part four of the series about Pax, and a vampire dystopia.
Ingela has brought a copy of Not Safe For Work to give away to one lucky reader. Just leave a comment at the end of the post to enter. The contest ends on Sunday, August 16th at 11:59 pm EST.
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