I was a citizen of the Internets since long before they were plural, before you could do much of anything online but read the depraved rantings of various other nerds, before every store or brand or vague idea had its own website.
I don’t say this because I think it’s especially impressive; my life online is a dubious source of pride. I say it to set the stage, as it were, to give you an idea of the world in which I was living when I was 17.
I “met” the guy in question on a message board for a cult TV show, where I was an obsessive and meticulous contributor. We emailed several times a day, in a world before Outlook and webmail, talking about all manner of ridiculous topics, and rapidly became close.
I had many online friends at this point in my life, although I was not particularly open about it -- for all the questions people raise today about how online communication (and texting and the like) is changing human relationships, in 1994 it was ten million times worse. Back then the assumption was that anyone making friends online must be a massive freak, and why would you want to befriend a massive freak?
In my experience, this wasn’t entirely inaccurate. The few local people I had met in “real life” had certainly been unusual, although I’d balk at calling them freaks. I met a woman who was extremely fat -- fat enough that at the time, even though I considered my own body to be unacceptably oversized, her body actually embarrassed me. I admit this with no small amount of regret, but it’s true that I was a little bit horrified to find the woman I’d so befriended online was so bewilderingly enormous in real life.
I met a dude with significant physical disabilities, who used a motorized wheelchair, and was similarly astonished to discover that the guy with whom I’d had so many epic and illuminating conversations about music did not look like anyone I would ever have willingly talked to in my non-online life.
Making friends online, at that time, gave me a heavy education in not judging books by their covers, an idea that would define so much of my existence as an activist and a creative-type person even today. So when I met Internet Boyfriend -- hey, let’s call him Chad -- I was mostly prepared to be open-minded about his inner awesomeness, even if his outer self did not match it. At least until he proved me otherwise.
When I say we were close, we were, but it was more an intellectual closeness than anything else. Truth be told I didn’t really think of Chad as my boyfriend, not really -- I only knew him on the Internet, for heaven’s sake, and he lived in Kansas -- but our emails were certainly more familiar than pure friendship, in retrospect. He would send me notes and observations that were awfully romantic, but I considered this an extended flirtation, nothing more.
Chad wanted to come visit. From Kansas. Let me remind you that I was 17 at the time, living with my dad in South Florida, and Chad was somewhere in his thirties. This should have been a red flag, but being so young, I was mostly thinking it would be fun, and flattering, to have a dude travel so far just to hang out with me. Yeah, I was pretty innocent, if not naive.
Besides, unlike everyone else I’d met online before meeting in real life, Chad sent me a picture. This was before the Internet was wall to wall with scam artists -- indeed, this was before digital cameras were ubiquitous, and scanners were big-time expensive technology only found in certain businesses, so I had every reason to trust the picture he sent. And in truth, it WAS a fairly accurate picture of him, a small square image of just his head and face, like a driver’s license photo. He had dark hair that fell over his forehead, a trim beard, a broad smile. He looked very normal, surprisingly so.
Once he’d arrived in my city, Chad called me from his motel, a small motor lodge in an older part of town. He told me his room number and instructed me to come over, but, for all my innocence, I was a smart girl, and going directly to his room seemed like a very stupid idea. Instead, I told him to meet me in the lobby.
I arrived a bit early and stood across from the registration desk, staring at the dingy and outdated furnishings, nervously awaiting his approach. And then I saw him, striding toward me just beyond the sliding-glass doors that led to the blocks of rooms.
If this reveal were a film sequence, it would have happened as a slow-motion montage of hilarious horror. The first thing I saw was his socks -- top-striped tube socks, pulled knee high, vanishing into high-top red Converse that looked like they had been originally purchased before I entered high school. Then there were the tiny jogging shorts.
Oh yes, tiny tiny jogging shorts, the kind that might easily betray a testicle when a dude was sitting down, and a shirt bearing a faded screenprint advertising some local Kansas establishment, at least a size too small. Also, there was a mullet. Not an ironic mullet: a mullet committed to in deadly seriousness, pulled into a greasy ponytail, which explained why this hair was invisible in the picture he’d sent.
This outfit would be hipster chic today, I’ll admit, but at the time it was not. I had a moment in which I wondered -- HOPED, even -- that this was a prank. You know, “Ha ha, these aren’t my real clothes! It’s funny because we met on the Internet and this is like the stereotypical Internet horror story! I shall go change now, and take off this wig, and I will look like Christian Slater, and everything will be fine!”
I stood there, staring at him, my face frozen in a horrified grin, waiting for his admission. He smiled and shuffled his feet and eventually asked, “So are we going to eat?”
My god, I thought. This is really happening.
Yes, I was a shallow teenager. It would take many years for me to learn to be more forgiving of social and stylistic ineptitude, and now, being exactly twice the age I was then, I don’t blink twice at nerds dressed nerdily. But at the time, I could not imagine a more terrible scenario.
We went to Bennigan’s. My order was spartan: a bowl of potato soup and nothing else, in the hopes that ordering little would enable this experience to conclude as quickly as possible. If I felt any guilt over my superficial revulsion, my reaction was justified by our conversation.
Chad was not simply socially inept; he was kind of a jerk. He interrupted me, made vicious comments about the other people in the restaurant, and barely seemed to listen when I tried to talk. If he had been merely awkward, I might have been mortified, but not disgusted. As it was, he actually seemed like an asshole, and the more he talked, the more he confirmed this assessment.
The meal over, I figured I had done as much as could be reasonably expected and told him I would drop him at his motel. “So, what are we doing tomorrow?” he asked. It turned out he expected me to entertain him for the whole week. I know, because he said as much. I told him, as gently as I could manage, that I was very busy (with SERIOUS TEENAGER BUSINESS, I guess) and I wouldn’t be able to ferry him around the whole time.
Sullen, he asked me to at least drive him to a rental car agency, so he’d have his own transportation. I figured this was reasonable, until he got into a ferocious argument with one of the employees at the first place we went.
Chad had a suspended license (owing to one too many DUIs), and could not fathom why the car rental place would not allow him to rent a car. With his suspended license. Which he got from drinking and driving. He was enraged and called the manager names. Eventually we were directed to go to a less-reputable car rental agency down the road, which begrudgingly gave Chad a car. As soon as I had verification that Chad’s transportation was arranged, I was out of there like the proverbial bat from the mouth of hell, and feeling very grateful about my lucky escape.
I avoided Chad the rest of the week. The prospect of spending even one more minute with this man left me shivering with nauseous revulsion. The only pang of remorse I felt was when he called on his last day and testily informed me that he’d had a bunch of gifts for me -- one of which was a concert program from the most recent Tori Amos tour, which I’d regrettably missed -- and now he wouldn’t be able to deliver them. As much as I wanted that concert program, I was not willing to see him again for it. He was angry, and at the time I felt guilty for it, although I probably shouldn’t have.
He sent me angry emails for a week after he got home, too, I suppose just to make sure I was properly chastised. We didn’t talk again after that.
It only occurred to me later -- like, years later -- that dude might have thought he was coming into town for a week-long booty call, and his anger was as much due to my having proven to be a profound disappointment in that department, as it was my refusal to even hang with him on a friendly basis.
That realization helped to contextualize the whole thing: If we were both full-fledged adults, or if the sex had been agreed to beforehand, it would be a different matter, but the fact was this thirtysomething guy probably traveled thousands of miles to try to seduce a 17-year-old girl -- a virgin, at that. It frankly makes me sick to think about it.
Today I wouldn’t dismiss a guy like Chad simply for not knowing how to dress himself; even then, though his appearance gave me pause, I was willing for him to be an awesome enough person that his lack of sartorial know-how would cease to be an issue for me -- not unlike the fat woman I’d met, who had so charmed me within the first few minutes of our real-life encounter that I rapidly came to glare angrily at the strangers who openly gawked at her size, or the disabled dude, who was every bit the brilliantly articulate gentleman he’d been online, such that his disability soon just became a characteristic no more distracting than his choice of shirt.
These experiences helped me to learn that people rarely meet your initial expectations, no matter what they may be. A good person is a good person no matter what they look like. Unfortunately, as was the case with Chad, the same is true of a bad person, and even if he had been the Christian Slater lookalike I’d hoped for, I doubt I would have liked him any better.