In Which We Pay Attention To Our Breath

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The Virus

by ELIZABETH BARBEE

2002 was my freshman year of high school. It was also the year my family bought a computer. Until that point I had composed essays on an electric typewriter and collected rocks for fun. My parents were neither cheap nor obstinate; they were just blind to the benefits of modern technology.

I took to the Web right away. Myspace was still cool, primarily a place for musicians and artist types to show off tattoos. In order to have an account, it seemed you needed a pair of horn-rimmed glasses or Converse All Stars. I had neither but knew a boy who did. His profile replaced TV as my primary source of entertainment. I checked it obsessively, looking for evidence of a girlfriend, of course, but mostly just wanting to immerse myself in a world that seemed more creative and exciting than my own. Eventually I got up the courage to message him on AIM.

Our conversations were uneventful and exhilarating. We swapped favorite lyrics and book titles. Occasionally, he suggested we grab coffee, but we never followed through. Though I knew nothing would come of it, I lived for the hour we spent each evening, typing back and forth. He had just started initiating contact when our computer contracted a virus, stranger and more debilitating than any I have seen since.

For months, my romantic efforts were undermined by midget porn. The moment you logged on to the Internet, videos of small men pounding even smaller women filled the screen. The pop-ups were so detailed there was no point in buying the full-length movie. More than horrified, I was livid. Web access had come to feel like a basic human right. Rather find something else to do, I stared at the screen and sulked.

My mother found the whole thing hilarious. When I had visitors, she insisted I take them to the computer room. “Make sure they see the midget porn before they leave!” she said, “That’s not something anyone should miss.” For many of my friends, this was probably their first experience with sex, and I wonder sometimes if it had any affect on their long term preferences.

I remember one actress in particular with Shirley Temple curls and a butterfly tattoo above her left breast. Her moves were acrobatic and graceful. It was clear that as a child someone had carted her to and from gymnastics lessons. I was saddened by her lost innocence and suddenly desperate to hold onto my own. I flushed a half smoked pack of cigarettes down the toilet, vowed to focus more on my studies, and toyed with the idea of joining student council.

I was aware that I would not always be young and sheltered, that time would eventually thrust me into gritty adulthood. I struggled to embrace the moment and failed miserably. At sleepovers, instead of enjoying myself, I thought about how someday I would be too old to play Truth or Dare. I was experiencing, for the first time, something I now feel everyday: premature nostalgia.

I am haunted by the impermanence of things. Dinner parties, jobs, relationships – they all seem so fragile. To remedy the problem, I take meditation classes at the local Hare Krishna temple, where a man in an orange tunic urges me to pay attention to my breath. I obey, but the rise and fall of my chest makes me frantic. I imagine myself gasping for air on my deathbed, all the people I have met and places I have seen fluttering through my mind. This is going to take either a lot of practice or a lot of SSRIs.

Elizabeth Barbee is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Dallas. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her vital signs.

“Body” – Karen O (mp3)

“Sunset Sun” – Karen O (mp3)

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