✧ Finalist for the 2021 World's Best Short-Short Story Contest ✧
Selected by Robert Olen Butler
The first months I spent as a girl were online. Every night, after soccer practice, I would log on to my family’s shared PC, effectively checking out from my life as a preteen boy in Bush II’s suburban Texas. In the real world, I was just another acne-faced nerd whose brain lit up at fantasy lore and chainmail bikinis.
The body I designed in Runescape was blond, pale, and pink-clad. A pyramid-chested female modeled after Zelda in Ocarina of Time. Her clichés were a testament to how little I considered my preferences beyond making sure they read as feminine. My login, SylphRiver95, was produced by a random name generator. It was the name my many, many boyfriends called me by.
It wasn’t hard to date in the virtual universe of Gielnor. Online, men were desperate for someone to talk to about their lame jobs, their lamer fathers, how to best kill a horde of ice spiders. If their attempts at actual flirtation came out sappy and embarrassing, that didn’t stop me from liking them.
“What do you look like?” they asked after monologuing.
“I live in Perth Australia :)” I said. “The first thing I do every morning is go to the beach and surf.”
“What do you look like?”
“I am blond and have big boobs.”
Our conversations never went further than that, which was fine with me. At thirteen, I had only a nebulous concept of vaginal anatomy, much less how to fabricate sexts about one. I didn’t know much about surfing either.
I thought I forgot about these men, but now that I am a woman—a material woman—and therefore dating straight men for the first time in years, I often catch myself remembering these early boyfriends. I could be messaging a guy on a dating app, when out of nowhere he will ask about my body. He will ask if I have a penis and if it is big or not. He will ask for pictures and then ask why I am holding out—“Isn’t it fair for me to wonder?”—or else ask me to explain in corny detail what I fantasize about at night.
If I’m being honest, I miss my Runescape boyfriends. In bed, when I am lonely and unable to sleep, I imagine how they must have shaped my body in their minds all those years ago. What can imagination really produce with such little detail to go off? Did they picture me wet, a wet body rising from the ocean, thighs divided over a surfboard? If they did, then I bet the fantasy didn’t stop there. I bet they imagined I was buxom and scantily clad in an implausible bikini of woven steel. I bet they hoped I was imagining them too, that every evening, just after logging off, I stopped and thought of them, eyes still adjusting to the beige of my room, the neurasthenic blue of the sea outside my window, believing each of them was just as beautiful as me.
PHOEBE OATHOUT is a first-year MFA student at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, where she also works as an assistant editor for The Hopkins Review. Before Baltimore, she lived in Laramie, Wyoming, where she worked in student financial aid.