User, n. The word computer professionals use when they mean “idiot.”
— Dave Barry
The initial symptoms of a massive failure, such as a heart attack or stroke — a sore arm, a bit of vertigo — often appear benign. Catastrophe seems to happen so fast, but in retrospect, the discernible signs we’d initially ignored glare their condemnation. So it was when the response time of my keystrokes slowed to a crawl on my MacBook; I thought nothing of it. A reboot does for most computer issues what Tylenol does for headaches. I hit the power button and waited. A moment later, instead of the usual clear-sky blue of my laptop booting up, my display remained an inclement gray. No biggie, I thought, staring in wait for it to assume the appropriate hue.
It was taking an awfully long time. My brows furrowed at the uninspiring color. Just as I was about to give restarting another go, a symbol appeared — the image of a folder with a question mark in the center of the screen; it was blinking at me. As I watched the question mark blink in and out, without any indication of progress, a negligible bud of mild concern burgeoned into a bright red blossom of dread. Despite my trepidation, I was convinced the solution to the issue was merely a sequence of depressed keys away. Computer crashes, like car accidents or cancer, were not supposed to happen to me. There had to be some less terminal explanation.
Once apprised of my predicament, David sat beside me at his mother’s kitchen table, opened his laptop, and searched online tech forums for a solution. “Huh,” he made the mistake of saying.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
David knows me well enough to remain reticent rather than utter worrisome words like “It appears as though your laptop has shit the bed.” But with me staring him down and demanding elucidation on the word “huh,” he really had no choice but to break it to me. Faced with the news that my hard drive had crashed, added to the realization that I was 3000 miles away from my backup and had less than two days to submit polished versions of two articles I’d been working on, I did the only reasonable thing I could think of — I fell apart.
I was only vaguely aware of David making a phone call to determine if the local computer repair store (one of only two on the island where his parents live) was open. He ushered me toward his father’s circa ’80s Buick. As we sped to the computer hospital, I cradled the ailing one on my lap. Still under the impression that nothing really bad was happening — as if my freaking out was an automatic but unfounded response that David would later tell me had been for nothing before we laughed it off like all my other freak-outs — I plastered a nervous smile on my face and entered the store.
We stood at the counter for an eternity, despite the heads of teenaged employees that, like prairie dogs, were intermittently popping up from the triage room behind the register. Finally, a man in a Stephen Hawking–like wheelchair (with neck support and everything) rolled toward us. The man appeared fit; his hair was white, and he wore wire-rimmed glasses.
“It seems as though my hard drive has crashed,” I said.
“Not surprising, those SATA drives are crap,” the man muttered. “You have a backup?”
“Well, yes, but not with me, it’s at home. I didn’t thin—”
“Right. You didn’t,” he snapped. Then, speaking the phrase islanders use to convey their disdain for the tourists they loathe but who they rely on to provide a year’s worth of sustenance in three months, Dr. Strangelove sneered at me and said, “Summer people, some ‘r’ not.”
David’s gasp was barely audible. Blowing off the man’s insult, I said, “Is there anything you can do?”
“Well, you should have had a backup,” he said. “I’m not sure I can recover anything; chances are slim, maybe 20 percent.”
I bit my lip and wiped away a tear and made sure to keep smiling. “Well, anything you can do, if you can try, that would be—”
“Do you know your right from your left?”
“What? I don’t...”
The permanently seated man sighed loudly in exasperation. “Your right. From your left. Do you know the difference?” When I stared at him in confusion, the man sighed again and said, “Look. This is where you’re supposed to open the laptop, from this indented area in the middle. You’re opening it wrong, from the left side; I can tell, because it’s off alignment about a millimeter toward the right.”
“Not true,” I said with the conviction of the obsessive-compulsive.
“She’s right,” David chimed in. “She’s really weird about symmetry; she’d only open it from the middle. But it could have been me,” he added, offering to take the bullet.
“Anyway,” said the guy I was beginning to hate. “We’ll keep it overnight and freeze the hard drive and then see if we can recover anything. But I’m only going to do it once, and we might have only 20 minutes to retrieve information, if there’s any to retrieve.”
“It’s like leaving my child or something,” I joked.
“Well, if you don’t want to leave it, you can go right in here,” said the man, pointing to a jar, the side of which was engraved with the words, “Ashes of Problem Customers.”
I held back my tears until we got into the car, and then I broke down, hyperventilating all the way back to my in- laws’ place. When we got there, I marched straight upstairs to our room and collapsed on the bed. David, who’d never witnessed a panic attack quite this bad (apparently I was rocking back and forth and repeatedly tapping my collarbone) deliberated over whether or not to take me to the hospital. When the sound of David’s concern finally forged a hole through the blanket of stress that had been suffocating me, I sat up, suddenly sober. “Um, sorry about that,” I said.