Saturday, March 03, 2012

Internet Romance in a Different Era

These days, I read every month or so about the latest internet scandal involving teenagers and nefarious conduct. Though I concede I lived in a very different world, my own experiences in cyberspace were most often positive at that age. Back then, almost everyone between the ages of 14 and 20 had an AOL Instant Messenger account. Usually abbreviated as AIM, it was never difficult to find someone with whom to chat. Frequently, my online interactions became romantic interests.   

In the mid-1990's media-driven horror stories were somehow nowhere to be found. There was a kind of innocence present in our own adolescent, slightly existential dialogue and relationships. No one worried about sex offenders posing as someone significantly younger than their actual age. I rarely heard of anyone blackmailing or injuring another person based on their sexual orientation. Almost everyone with whom I spoke was highly tolerant. In fact, I confessed my bisexuality first to my online friends, well before my family.

While I admit I found a handful of bullies, regardless of reason, most of my conversations were convivial and cheerful. The amount of trust we displayed to each other was, in hindsight, quite remarkable. But then again, our circumstances were similar. We were coming of age in a time period of insecurity and face wash, often stuck at home and unable to flee the banality of small town life or suburbia. We had nowhere else to go and, above all, we needed each other.

Would it even happen now? I seriously doubt it. In the beginning, the internet was the domain of lonely, often isolated teenagers. Before business and the rest of humanity saw a compelling need to add its presence, we were the ones online, running up massive dial-up bills for our parents. To some extent, I feel like I was present when the internet changed for the meaner, for the worst. All of the other problems with everyday life appeared and took root.  Along with their introduction, the very things we were seeking to escape became inescapable.

Though I have often downplayed my successes, I have to admit that I became very good at finding internet crushes. Most of these were women, and each was within a few years of my age. The confidence I had always lacked in finding romance, to say nothing of personal dealings, came easily in a computer environment. My triumphs built up what had always been a tenuous self-esteem. I was forced to concede that there really must have been something about me that was appealing and attractive.

These experiences built my confidence and granted me what I had been otherwise severely lacking. Online romances were a stepping stone to the face-to-face relationships I had been craving and would eventually pursue. But in the meantime, memory holds several stories of meeting offline those who I had originally met online. Most of them have been found to be interesting by listeners. I even took extended car trips to visit a few of my love interests, but not before parents were informed of my plans first. My parents nervously assented to my visits, but were insistent I come up with a detailed plan of action first.

During one of these excursions, I was even allowed to tag along at high school with my crush. I got a chance to observe the daily routine of her high school, one far removed from my own. We would have dated if seven hours' drive hadn’t separated us. That story is sweet and a little melancholy, but mostly happy. A complete rendition may be shared someday, along with the others. In a moment of vanity, I admit I'm saving it for a book or a short story.

I was so eager for love, affection, and acceptance that no distance was too daunting. Did others follow my same path? If they did, I've never heard an account told in my presence. But I'd be surprised if I was the only one.

Shortly before I left for home, I had a picture taken of the two of us. In it, I look remarkably young and much thinner than I am today. We are posed against the bland backdrop of the seating section of a fast food restaurant. In the small Midwest town where I touched down, signs of civilization were difficult to find. I stayed two nights at the one and only motel present. What I remember most about the lodgings was that I found a pair of green panties underneath my bed. I speculated that the room might have been part of some couples’ extramarital affair.

Returning to the photograph, the attraction between the two of us is obvious. I can tell this by the way she smiles at the camera and leans close to me. When I examined it much later, I remembered again how beautiful she was. I couldn’t believe anyone that attractive would have wanted me. It was a confidence boost then and it still is today. The memory has lasted, the relationship has not. Sadly, I no longer have a copy in my possession. Taken in the days before digital cameras, I managed to lose the image, plus the matching negatives, during a move.

I wonder where she is today. Is she married? Does she have kids? Where does she live? If she thinks of me at all, I hope she thinks of me fondly. Internet relationships like ours were sometimes painful by their conclusion. I remember aching with desire and longing, but being unable to achieve the very thing I wanted most. Miles and miles separated us, and in the end, neither of us could hold out against the pressing need for constant contact and daily affection. Still, as learning experiences go, these were some of the best.

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