This Isn’t Really About Fishing

The following passage is excerpted from Tasha Coryell’s novel This Isn’t Really About Fishing.

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The most common question I am asked, beyond even how I make my complexion so smooth or stay so skinny, is why he did it. People wrinkle their noses when they say it and I want to tell them that being judgmental is bad for one’s face. They ask like there’s a single cause, like everything they’ve done in their own lives has some correlational reasoning behind it. They suggest that maybe he was abused as a child or was suffering from some sort mental illness, because mental illness can make a person do all sorts of things.

I tell them about the one time that Rob’s father spanked him as a child, a forgettable situation in which Rob refused to eat the steamed peas his mother had put on his plate and had instead dumped them out on the floor as a form of protest. His father, newly returned from one of his absences, told Rob that he shouldn’t disrespect his mother like that and spanked him lightly on the ass several times. It didn’t hurt, but Rob wailed like it did, and Rob’s father, a pacifist, never did it again.

People are disappointed by this. They want something sexual. A ritualized terrorizing as a child. They are disinterested in the mundane; it comes too close to home.

To say the barista caused him to do it sounds cheap. He was unaware of the cheapness of it. Wars have been fought over beautiful women. This can be the blame for a lot of things.

He was sitting in the coffee shop. He no longer had Clash of Kings to play, but he felt lonely in his house. There were other things that people did in coffee shops. They read books, they wrote novels. They talked to each other about world issues. But Rob had no books to read, so he walked to the coffee shop with his computer as he always did. He idly looked through pictures of houses, deciding whether he wanted an infinity pool or something more timeless. These were not real decisions, but he treated them like they were.

There was some guy flirting with the barista that Rob liked, the one with short hair. It wasn’t the guy that Rob suspected was her boyfriend, but someone else. If it had been her boyfriend, maybe it would’ve been okay, but he just couldn’t respect her when she was acting like that. If he couldn’t trust her while he was watching from a distance, how would he be able to trust her if they were in a relationship? She laughed. Rob resented the fun she was having, while he was having no fun. It was so easy for her. She just stood there and man after man came up to her and fell totally and completely in love and she didn’t even have to do anything. It was laziness on her part. After all, she was a barista. Even a server needed more qualifications than her job. Any girl could stand up there and look pretty. She probably wasn’t even smart. He had projected intelligence onto her body because that’s how he wanted her to be. But Rob, Rob had gone to college, he had gotten a degree and he had a job and a house and the women he wanted to love him still did not love him despite any efforts that he made. He wanted to stand behind a counter and have people wait in line to court him. They weren’t even waiting in line for courtship, they were just waiting in line for a hello and a cup of mediocre coffee. People were actually paying for this privilege. It must be so much easier living a life like that, being a beautiful woman.

He was bored. This was an unfamiliar feeling. He did not call it boredom. Instead, he just felt uncomfortable and wondered if he had drunk too much coffee. He looked at pictures of kitchens. He wondered if granite was going to stay in style or be replaced by something else. He liked designs that combined the classic with the contemporary. He wanted to have a study. He didn’t have anything to study in his study, but he wanted the option. He could go back to school and get a Ph.D. if only to have a use for the room. He could be Dr. Rob. The sort of man who owned a house with a study.

He was unconsciously bouncing his leg up and down. When he noticed that he was doing this, he stopped. He looked up at the barista. She was bent over the pastry display. Someone wanted a muffin. He bet that she never ate muffins. Part of her back was revealed. He thought about what it would be like to lift the rest of her shirt up. He would set her on the counter and take her underwear off and they would have sex, right there, in front of everyone. All of the other regulars would be impressed. They would tell him how they too were thinking about doing that, but none of them had the guts. They would have to go outside to smoke a cigarette because cigarettes were not allowed in the coffee shop.

The man who had been flirting with her earlier came back to the counter to get a refill. She gave it to him for free. She had never given Rob a refill for free. He always had to dig around in his pockets for the 50 cents.

He went to the Clash of Kings site. He didn’t realize that he was doing it. It was habitual for his fingers. The site urged him to sign in. It asked him if he was new and wanted to make an account. He clicked new user. He hadn’t been intending to start the game again. It had only been half a day since the last time he had logged in. He was planning to give himself a break. But he decided that he deserved to have some fun. He’d had a hard time lately, he told himself. His internet marriage had broken up. He worked a crappy job. His mother had died. He could make excuses to do just about anything this way.

He had gone through this process so long ago that he had forgotten all the steps. When they asked his gender, he clicked female. People ask if this was deliberate on his part. Did he want to be a girl? Was this a secret longing that he’d had all his life that only became expressed through the creation of this character? I tell them no, he was merely ensuring his own privacy for reentering the site. He didn’t want anyone to recognize Rob as himself and maleness was certainly the first indicator. I might be oversimplifying though. Maybe Rob was trying to find some other part of himself or some part completely not of himself. No one could blame him, not really, we all want to be someone else sometimes. Even I have my moments of longing, because no matter what we do to our bodies, surgery, weight-loss, clothing, or make-up, we will never be anyone besides ourselves.

Rob felt his dick get a little hard as he clicked the button for female. It felt like he was entering forbidden territory. He was like Louis and Clark, exploring parts of the country that were undiscovered. He paused a moment when they asked him to design his physical appearance. He wanted to be beautiful, but not too beautiful. The type of girl that was approachable, the type of girl that could exist. He picked blonde hair, though in theory he preferred red. Maybe it was because his ex-girlfriend had blonde hair. This was something that he’d attained.

It only took ten minutes and she emerged. She was a whole woman: legs and breasts and hair. People talk about women as the ones who gave birth, but he had created a whole other being in a matter of minutes. This wasn’t like his other self, his knight self, because that had merely been an extension of himself, a furthering of Rob as Rob. He was Rob and the person he had created was someone else. He looked around the coffee shop to see if anyone was watching. His screen was turned away from them, but somehow he was convinced that they knew, convinced that they could see through to the other side where he stood, blonde and effeminate, a weakling. No one was looking, of course. No one was ever looking at him.

He entered the world of Clash of Kings. It was a familiar path, but somehow felt different. The princess moved different than the knight did. Rob was aware that he had breasts. He could look down and see them, pixelated and heaving. He surveyed her body. He couldn’t feel the skin, but he knew what the skin was feeling.

While he had been creating this character, the barista had gotten off her shift and left without him even noticing. Many times, a girl will think a boy is ignoring her purposefully, but in reality he is not thinking about her at all.

Rob knew where to go in the game, he knew the fights to be had. His first stop was the weapons store. A new player couldn’t get much, but they could at least a small knife and some sticks that could then be sharpened into a stake. He walked in the door. While the stores visually had a limited amount of space, there could be an unlimited amount of players in the store at any given time, their names listed on the side of the screen. Rob knew some of these names and although his presence, as this new female, a princess, was entirely inconsequential to them and their weapon trading, it was exciting to be in the same place as them and be unknown.

“Hey,” someone said, the voice a ding, the text appearing at the bottom of the screen.

It was a name that Rob recognized from previous missions. He didn’t know the player well, but he was at a high level. He could be helpful in the future.

He was a king. No one was sure what the kings ruled or what made them kings at all. People name themselves after the things they want to be. It would be thought that being a king would make a player special, but instead there were many kings, which made the position itself useless. The avatars themselves were slightly slower and more rotund than the knights and the princes. They were made for sitting in thrones that didn’t exist for no one owned the kingdom.

“You’re new, right?” the king said.

“Yes, I just started.”

This made Rob giggle audibly. He put his hand over his mouth to stop himself and glanced around the coffee shop to make sure no one had noticed.

“If you need help, just ask me. It can be difficult around here. What’s your name?”

Rob repeated the name he had given the avatar: Cleopatra95. He had chosen that name to signify that she was really beautiful like Cleopatra. 94 other people had previously had the same logic.

“No, not that name. Your real name.”

Rob had never known the feeling of being nameless. Everyone has stories of naming. He had been named after his grandfather, the one that died before he was born. Naming was a way of rebirth in addition to being a method of defining identity. Rob looked like a Rob. Was that even necessary to say? People always looking like themselves. His big facial features, disproportionately wide torso. His full name was Robert, as most Robs were, but he had never been a Robert except on the first day of school, teachers reading off attendance lists. He quickly corrected the mistakes.

“Rob,” he said. “My name is Rob.” He often found it difficult to speak up in class, but never when it came to the correction of self.

“Sophia,” he said. “My name is Sophia.”

The way it came to him, he knew it had to be fate. This girl was meant to have this name. She was no longer just a screen named being, but a whole.

“Welcome, Sophia. My name’s Frank.”

Rob wanted to argue. He didn’t need a welcome. He already belonged. He wanted to tell Frank everything that he already knew about the game, impress him with his knowledge. He wanted to ask what sort of name Frank was. But he stayed quiet, like he didn’t know anything at all.

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Boys like it when girls sit and watch them play videogames. I’ve asked to hear the deepest, darkest, fantasies of men and they’ve slowly whispered into my ear, “I want you to give me a blow job while I play this first person shooter.”

While I sit and watch them play, I wonder if they would find it more satisfying to be doing this in real life. If the reason that they are playing these games is because they actually want to be the gun wielding army man, shooting down all the enemies. If they actually want to steal cars and seduce large breasted women. If they want to hop from block to block, slaying their enemies while risking being killed. If what they wanted was three chances of life before death.

But no one I’ve dated has ever joined the army. To my knowledge, none of them have ever held a real gun, despite how skilled they might be at pulling the trigger on a simulated one. I suggest that we go out and dance for surely a bar is less fearful than a warzone littered with bombs and enemies and they tell me no, they get nervous in social situations. They say this as they shoot zombies and slay enemies five times bigger than themselves.

I have tried to play videogames with them. This is the sort of girl I would like to be, the kind that can do things like this with her boyfriend, but I’m not good at it. The controller doesn’t do for me what it does for other people. I’m told that what I do is called button mashing. It is all I know how to do. I prefer to be on the same team as my boyfriends, otherwise they have no hesitation about shooting me. People are surprised when I tell them this. They expect everyone to treat me with reverence. But this is the place people lose themselves. I sit and I wish that the game were real, for certainly they would me let someone gun me down. In real life, people don’t come back from that. How can heroism exist if there’s nothing on the line?

Eventually I just quit. Tell them to play without me. I sit and watch quietly. This is not my nature. On occasion, I take my clothes off. Slowly strip down to nothing to see if they notice me. Still, when I reach that point of complete exposure, they say, “Hold on, babe. I have to reach a save point.” They take this for granted with me. They never worry about having to find save points.

Rob always preferred the sort of game that was a journey. It would be easy to abuse this information and say that Rob was a more complicated person than my boyfriends. That he didn’t like violence for the sake of violence, but because he was on some sort of mission. The type of personality who likes to finish things. It could just as easily be assumed that Rob liked these sorts of fantasy games because he liked dragons and swords and fighting for his honor and wooing women. He had not even completed the game for the first time before he started again as Sophia. It was possible that he liked the idea of something that he could finish, but never quite got there. He thought that maybe, with this new chance, he would finish as Sophia. He had a fresh start. He was someone new. Because the game was perpetually happening, it would never be the same twice, but there were similarities, Rob still knew what to do. If Sophia walked through the forest for long enough, she would stumble upon some sort of beast, something small, for her first kill. The further she traveled, the larger the monsters would get, some too large for her to take on, but this is why people made friends, to help them conquer things they could not conquer on their own.

Frank took Sophia’s hand. This was not an agreed upon action so much as he *took hold of her hand.* Rob was unsure how to analyze this action. Girls had taken his hand before, after drinks at the bar or during movies, and the entire time Rob was uncomfortable. He had sweaty hands and spent the whole experience worrying about his date’s perception of this moisture. He always thought about letting go, but felt that it was his duty, as the girls seemed to, to hold their hands on these occasions and that to let go would be a greater violation than his sweat. Sophia’s hands were not sweaty, as pixels could not sweat. Her hands were not something embarrassing. They had no hair and if looked at closely, the nails would be carefully manicured. But what were her obligations to hold hands with Frank? She was not his girlfriend. They had just met and Frank, the king, was touching Sophia’s hand as if it was his own hand. Rob felt very defensive of her hand, because it was in actuality, his hand, and it did not belong to Frank. Rob didn’t know how to take the hand back. He had always waited until the girl was too disgusted by her sweat and pulled her own hand away to wipe off the sweat on her pants. He couldn’t just say *taking back my hand.* So he let Frank hold it and felt uncomfortable because a man had never held him this way.

Rob knew how to move in the game. Rob didn’t know how to dance, but he knew how to control a computer mouse like it was an extension of his own arm. If only he could move his hips like they were his own hips. Sophia could not work a mouse or even her own arm at all. Rob became her clumsiness. His movements were jerky. She would try to turn left in the game and ended up turning around completely. She didn’t know where she was going and had to ask Frank for directions.

“I’m so bad with maps,” she said.

“It’s okay. I’ll show you,” Frank said. Rob could not hear Frank’s tone, because he could not hear anything that Frank was saying at all, but he imagined that Frank was grateful to be showing Sophia around as Rob himself would be grateful to be showing Sophia around.

A small creature ran by. One of the features of the game was that things were often not what they seemed. Rob knew that this creature, while appearing to be small and cute, actually had a poisonous bite and one nip was enough to cost Sophia her life. But Sophia didn’t know that. Rob wondered what it would be like to experience her death, if it would be like experiencing his own: a vast sense of disappointment.

“How cute!” Sophia exclaimed because that’s what she felt like she should exclaim, even though Rob knew better.

Frank darted out and killed the animal with a small knife. He *smiled.*

“A lot of new people make that mistake,” he said.

Rob could’ve killed the animal. He’d killed hundreds. The first one had almost killed him. He was in the forest alone and his body was flashing with imminent death. No one stepped in to save him or show him the way. He’d held on, eventually stabbing it in the heart, the body dissipating on the forest floor. If only a game existed where the players had to clean up the mess they made. Earn points to buy a mop and hazardous waste bins.

“This is better for your first kill,” Frank said, pointing to a sharp-toothed flower. “Just quickly pull it out by the roots.”

Like the animal, the flower appeared to be beautiful, but was actually deadly. As she leaned forward, the flower opened up to reveal a giant mouth with sharp teeth. Sophia just barely managed to grab it in time, Rob’s fingers desperately clicking the mouse. Once removed from the ground, the teeth shrank and the flower blossomed brighter, just as Sophia’s life grew stronger.

“Good job,” Frank said, but Sophia didn’t need him to tell her that. She already knew that she had done a good job. She *put the flower in her hair.* She felt that she looked beautiful that way. She strutted through the forest. Frank congratulated her on her quick improvements.

“I learn fast,” she said.