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CHAPTER 1

This is what I’ve learned so far about Rhode Island chat rooms.

Not everyone is from Rhode Island.

Correct spelling and complete sentences are the signs of a newcomer.

And no matter what the supposed topic of the chat room, two-thirds of the conversation is always about sex.

You might ask what I was doing sitting in the dark in the bedroom, cruising these chat rooms. Especially since I live with my boyfriend and was not looking for sex. I could tell you that I was doing background research on a story for the paper. But that would not be completely honest. That story idea only occurred to me tonight, and I’d been glued to my laptop for nearly a month.

It started one night when Matt was away at a political fundraiser for his boss. I was home alone doing research for work, and I wound up at an online poker site with realistic casino sounds and a flashing welcome urging me to Play Now! Play Now! I’ve had issues with gambling in the past, so to divert myself from temptation, I clicked onto Rhode Island Buzz, a social networking site. From my very first visit to a chat room, I found the sheer deviance of my online friends riveting.

Right now, for example, Eternalwoman, who usually resided in the love and relationships chat room, had moved into video culture where she was, once again, advertising herself as a bisexual woman interested in “mostly women” but possible threesome if "certain conditions are met."

RoarP3, who might be bot – one of those automated robots pretending to chat but really just advertising some porno site, replied: "Ck out SEASIDE RIDE @ the RI cam directory. Dizzywon stars. Gt ur rocksoff."

Dizzywon starring? This threw me because I knew Dizzywon. I talked to her frequently in the video room. Her spelling was bad, even for the Internet, but she had a good sense of humor, especially when she went into her riff about stalking Adam Sandler. And she agreed with me about the sorry state of most new sci-fi movies.

I immediately clicked the link and was on the homepage of the Rhode Island webcam directory. On it, I saw “Seaside Rides,” which had a still shot of the waves breaking over a beach, and several other listings that looked equally scenic in nature. One was of the rocks hitting a jetty outside the lighthouse in Port Judith, which advertised an Inn there. Another of downtown Providence, with a view of the Independent Man atop the statehouse dome. And my favorite, a webcam trained on the Big Blue Bug, a nine-foot tall fiberglass termite overlooking the highway.

After I clicked on Seaside Ride, I decided that Rurik might be a human after all, and that he was playing to an even raunchier side of Eternalwoman. This video wasn’t just waves breaking on the beach. There were two girls lying next to each other, face down, on a big blanket. They both had small, thin bodies that did not look particularly tan, and they wore bikinis. Pink on the left, and lime green on the right.

Could one of these fifteen year olds really be Dizzywon? I had never checked her profile page, but by her knowledge of foreign films alone, I’d figured she was in her mid twenties.

It was dusk, or maybe just a poor quality camera, but I could make out a sweatshirt under one of the girl’s heads and a stack of magazines strewn on the blanket.

The girl nearest the camera, in the lime green, reached her hand back and fiddled with the elastic of bathing suit bottom, trying to get the sand out. There was apparently a lot of sand, because she began to shift from thigh to thigh, trying to rid herself of the irritant. She became increasingly frustrated, until her friend, in the pink, sat up. Pink had her short legs up in the air and I could see what looked like a tattoo on one of her ankles. She looked into the webcam and smiled thoughtfully. She had a small heart-shaped face, oddly-spaced front teeth, and short dark hair. Very short, almost a boys’ cut.

It started innocently enough, with Pink merely lifting a corner of Lime Green’s elastic, but then, she slipped her entire hand under the girl’s bathing suit bottom and brushed gently back and forth across the buttocks. The frustration of Lime Green immediately dissipated. She settled into the blanket and turned her head to the camera and for the first time, we saw her face, which was Irish-looking, fair and freckled, with a snub nose and almost no chin. She shifted her buttocks up into her friend’s hand, and sighed.

The video went dark, but there were giggles just before the clip ended.

Was this kiddy porn? Right here in the open? Next to Chamber of Commerce advertising?

My heart began to beat rapidly. This was partly Catholic guilt, and I switched on the nightstand lamp as if this would wash away whatever venial sin I’d committed in simply viewing this clip. But it was more personal than that. I really liked Dizzywon. Felt a connection. And although you never really knew anyone on the Internet, I was still disturbed to realize I’d bonded with what? A fifteen year-old? And not just any fifteen-year old, but some kind of soft porn star.

I took a minute to regroup. I clicked onto Dizzywon’s profile page, which said she was from Providence, loved “television, movies, music and making friends.” It said she was “single” into “men” and that Joss Stone was her favorite singer. She offered no formal name for herself, and no photo. Instead, there was a cartoon of Betty Rubble from the Flintstones.

Of course, there was no photo on my profile page either. I don’t photograph very well. I always appear startled by the camera. So I went the “bare bones” approach, and identified myself only as "Hallie," a female from Providence. But am I so immature at thirty-six years old that Dizzywon figured I was a teenager, too?

I hated to admit to myself that this was a distinct possibility.

This might have made me feel just slightly pathetic. Especially since I knew I’d been wasting too much time on the Internet. But now the reporter in me had begun to sense a story.

I heard a tapping sound and realized my fingers were drumming on the edge of the keyboard. They had skipped past the horror of young girls sexualizing themselves for whatever reason, and were twitching over the fact that since it was a beach shot on a Rhode Island social network, there was a good chance that both these young girls were local.

I played the clip a second time, studying the beach to see if I recognized anything about it. But the pan was too narrow. It could be any beach anywhere from Florida to Maine. I played the clip a third time to more carefully determine the girls’ ages. By their skinny little bodies and new breasts, they looked about fifteen. But studying Pink’s face more carefully, I decided she could be older, maybe sixteen. Since we saw Lime Green’s face for only a moment, she was tougher to tell. But those freckles looked pretty fresh. She could still be in middle school.

I downloaded the clip into my research file on the laptop, quit the directory and stared at my screen saver. It was a company laptop and the Chronicle logo scrolled past in its official Roman font, reminding me that I really should get a digital camera and upload a photo to personalize my workspace.

The phone on the nightstand rang. It was Matt himself, calling to say he was on his way home, and giving me the choice between pizza and Chinese food. I quickly decided on mushroom pizza to avoid the many choices a Chinese menu would entail. Because now I’d realized that if I could get Dizzywon to talk to me, tell me why and how they made this clip, I could sell this story to my editor as an expose about what all this computer literacy was really doing for today’s youth. What kids today were doing with their high priced computers.

Returning to my laptop, I signed onto the teenage chat room and searched for Dizzywon’s screen name.

She was there, in the midst of a conversation with someone named ChaCha about the new Justin Timberlake CD.

I decided to hang out a minute and ran my cursor over the list of screen names on the right hand side of the page. This revealed that most of the names were female, but I could tell that only three of these were likely to be real people. The rest were working girls or businessmen-pretending-they-were-girls trying to promote their porno websites. The instant message screen popped up and someone named Wiseguy09 asked me if I’d like to chat with him privately.

I put the cursor over his name, which said he was male and twenty five. He probably thought I was a teenager, too, the loser. I clicked him off my screen.

I sent Dizzywon a private, instant message and told her that I loved her clip on the beach.

She replied: "LOL"

Laugh Out Loud. This was the standard non committal response. What you say when you really are just stalling.

I decided to be bold. “Mst be good way to meet boyz,” I typed with every misspelling I could muster.

"Where u go to skool"

I had to think for a minute to figure out exactly where I’d be going to school at fourteen or fifteen. Would I still be in middle school? I wracked my brain for the name of one of Providence’s high school’s. I chose one of the private schools one of the reporter’s sent her kids: St. Ann’s.

"Kool" Dizzywon wrote.

But suddenly, I realized that I’d screwed up. St. Ann’s, a parochial school, might be kindergarten-through eighth grade. The oldest I could be would be what? Twelve, Thirteen? Would Dizzywon abandon our budding friendship because I was too young?

But it didn’t seem to faze her. “U hav cut boyz at ur school” She did not seem to know about question marks.

Maybe she wasn’t familiar with St. Ann’s. Maybe I lucked out. “No way.” I typed back.

We chatted back and forth about how all the cute boys go out with the stupid girls. Then she asked. “u got a webcam”

Do all thirteen year olds? But if I had one, she could ask me to send a picture of myself and I didn’t want to do that. “No.”

“boyz like to see what u look like”

No kidding. Especially old guys on the Internet. I hesitated, unsure how to reply.

“r u cute” She now probed.

The one thing I remembered clearly from high school was that no teenage girl ever liked the way she looked. “Ugh.”

“U R probably beautful” Dizzywon couldn’t spell or punctuate, but was awfully committed to boosting my self esteem.

“At least I’ve got boobs.” This was the biggest lie ever, but hey, this was pretence, and I had the sneaking suspicion that boobs would make me more photogenic if I actually did have a webcam. Plus, now I was curious about what Dizzywon really wanted from me.

“u can sometimes get 1 for free," she wrote.

She was talking about the webcam. “How?”

She didn’t answer directly. Instead: “u play with any of the guys in the rooms” Still no use of question marks.

“R guys nice there?” I asked.

“some giv u presents”

Presents? I was on to something bigger than a teenage girl’s mere foolishness. And now, I was sure that Dizzywon definitely had an agenda. I didn’t want to sound too eager for information, too much like a reporter, so I tried to play it cool. “Yeah?”

“nice stuf” she replied.

There was a long pause in which I typed, erased, re-typed, erased again. What kind of stuff? What kind of guys? What kind of gig was this? But instead, I just waited.

Finally, she asked, “u really like the beach clip”

“Its cool.” After a second, I decide to be a bit bolder. “SEXY.” All capitals. As if this excited me.

“boys like it. A LOT” She typed back.

“LOL,” I replied.

Here, another instant message opened up on my screen. It was someone named BBalls09 asking me I wanted to talk for a while. His profile said he was thirty-six. My age and hanging around the teenage chat room. I clicked him away.

“I can gt a free cam?” I asked Dizzywon.

“EZ” She typed back.

“How?”

“can u get to the best price in warwick”

The Best Price was one of those warehouse stores, full of electronics. I was pretty sure it was on Universal Boulevard. And that a teenager could get a bus there from Providence. “I think so.”

“guy name Jimmy he’s there tomorrow. tell him u r my friend.”

But I didn’t want to meet Jimmy, who was probably stealing the stuff from Best Price and too smart to talk to me when he saw that I was no teenager. I wanted to meet Dizzywon to see if I could convince her that talking to me would be her fifteen minutes of fame. Off the record, of course, so she wouldn’t get in trouble with her parents.

“Nother time.” I typed back.

There was a long pause. Then: “u scared”

I figured a teenager would never admit this, so I said: “No way.”

“Then go see Jimmy.”

I waited, pretending that I was thinking about it. I finally typed back. “The bus is a pain.”

“from prov? not so bad, i do it a lot.”

Dizzywon was really pushing this meeting with Jimmy tomorrow. I needed a good excuse. What could get in the way? “I hav lacrosse practice aftr school.”

“so u can’t cut skool, either”

“Big game Friday.” I typed back.

There was another long pause in which neither of us typed anything. Finally, she wrote: “saturday, then.’

Were we still talking about me meeting Jimmy? “I don’t no.”

“what if I meet u there”

I paused again, so not to be too eager. “Would u do that?”

She told me her name is Lexie, and I gave her my real name, Hallie, which she could easily get from my profile and which sounded teenage-enough. Then, we agreed to meet in the digital camera aisle, Saturday at noon

“leav me a messag if u can’t make it” she added.

“I can make it,” I typed back. I waited a minute to see if she’d write anything else. But after a minute the instant message box just disappeared from my screen.


Copyright © 2008 by Jan Brogan

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