Everyone has a rival: this is an indisputable fact. Thomas Edison had Nikola Tesla, going toe to toe in the current war. Bill Gates had Steve Jobs, in a race for the future of personal computing. Mine is someone I have never met in person, never exchanged words with, never even seen. But I hate him, intensely and with every fiber of my being. He is the bane of my existence, the hobgoblin that sours my milk, the blight that has ruined my crops. You, my dear reader, may be asking yourself, “Who is this enigmatic enemy of yours, that he is invoking such a visceral reaction? A politician? A businessman? The Pope?”
Nope. Their name is Lucas217873, and if I meet them I’m gonna kill them.
Duolingo should have been a relaxing experience. The best way to learn a language, they claimed. Making learning languages fun. As a high schooler I had studied only what I needed to, and over the years have forgotten all but the most basic words in French. Things like bonjour, ca va, and inexplicably framboise. However, being stuck in the uncomfortable reality that doom was around every unsanitized corner made me realize that now was an excellent time to rediscover French. It could be part of my plan to reinvent myself during quarantine. The first step in becoming the motivated, productive, and mega-accomplished self starter I always wanted to be. Instead, it has become the chain binding me to a rock of inevitability, and Lucas217873 the eagle that pecks at my liver.
The first thing I do in the mornings is put on my headphones and brace myself for at least an hour of conjugation and sentence construction. That’s how long it takes to catch up to the ludicrous 400 or 500 XP that Lucas has managed to eke out. With my feeble French skills I must rapidly spit out translations and definitions as accurately as possibly, and as I do I feel the specter of time slowly ticking away.
Afterwards I do my best to get through the day writing emails, attending meetings, doing reports and messaging my coworkers without looking at the leaderboard. I have things to do. Productive things. Healthy, human, functional-
Just a few more lessons. I can’t let them overtake me. Not with their awful profile picture of the ginger cat staring into my soul, calling me Pathetic. Not with their slavish devotion to the Swedish language, which according to Duolingo’s fun facts is the #1 language in Sweden due to Duolingo’s use by refugees. Perhaps it is trying to have me congratulate Lucas for their devotion to advanced language learning, making me step off the warpath and appreciate their efforts. Screw that. I am made of holy fire and unstoppable sentence structure.
It doesn’t help that they mock me with the little blue border surrounding their profile picture. For those not in the know, this means a user has paid for Duolingo Plus. No ads, no interruptions, and regular progress quizzes and checks. Those are the official features. The unofficial features include a smug sense of superiority, knowing you have paid for the privilege of watching others suffer under the ever-trickling sands of time, and a non-refundable high horse.
By now you’re reading this, wondering why I don’t just take a break from Duolingo if fighting this stranger on the internet is stressing me out this much. First of all, this is good for me. Feuding is good motivation, and language learning is a very important thing I told myself I would do as part of becoming a better human being ™. Secondly, I want to take a break. I do. But then just as I sink back and tell myself that maybe today I won’t obsess over my language streak and start browsing Twitter, it pops up on my notifications. That incessant talking owl, alerting me that “You just lost your spot! Compete to take back the #1 spot!” So I grimace, grit my teeth, and get back to conjugations.
Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up in a cold sweat and check my phone, to find that they have nudged themselves hundreds of points ahead of me. God damn timezones. So at 1:23 am I get back to work and talk about nonexistent weather, my family tree of a hundred sisters, and my sudden transformation into a cat or horse. It’s an obsession at this point. A madness, crawling its way into my body and latching onto my competitive spirit. I tell myself that one day, this must all be over. One day, the long shadow cast by my insufferable enemy will vanish, as they give up on their studies of Swedish for other pursuits, such as petting cats, fishing, or literally anything else. I will reign at the top of the leaderboard and look down at their cold virtual corpse and laugh.
Until then, that emerald green owl owns both our souls.
Kyle is a dreamer, writer, and full-time complainer from the Philippines. Her writing has been published in Idle Ink, Mineral Lit, and Analogies & Allegories among others. You can find her on Twitter at @PercyPropa, or follow her work at whatkylewrites.carrd.co.