WHEN I WAS 11, just a girl, I pretended to be a 35-year-old man on the Internet and had a love affair with a Mormon woman in Idaho.
I kept it up for three years.
It was 1996 and I’d just started middle school. I was what my grandma called “a tall drink of water.” I had hair down to my waist with a middle part, huge glasses that dwarfed my face, and a wardrobe that consisted exclusively of embroidered overalls and turtlenecks. I was coming off the high of elementary school, where everyone is your friend and the library has posters of puppies and kitties reading books.
I started middle school thinking I’d be getting more of the same. The year before, my mom suggested I wear glasses to keep the kids from teasing me about my lazy eye. The reasoning was that glasses corrected eye problems, so would-be bullies, catching sight of my lazy eye, would see that I was wearing glasses and had the whole situation under control.
On the first day of middle school, I got called “cyclops” and “retard” and had been given the nickname “Urkel.” I came home, a shell of the bright-eyed keener I’d once been, to find that my mom had bought our family its first computer: A Gateway 2000 with AOL 3.0. She left me alone with the Internet and went off to earn a living so she could raise two kids by herself.
I got on our Gateway 2000 and I went straight to the chat rooms. I tried to find a room with people outside my age and experience level. I tried tag words like “spirituality” and “outdoor” before finally landing on “parenting.” I babysat and related to adults, so I thought I could relate.
In every chat room the same thing was scrolling across the screen: A/S/L. Age. Sex. Location.
I entered “Parenting” and my fingers hovered above the keyboard a while. I could say anything I wanted.
I typed: 35/M/Brisbane, Australia.
Thirty-five, because that seemed super old to me at the time and the age that “parents” are. And the rest I took from the life of Darren Hayes, lead singer of the Australian pop band Savage Garden.
If the Internet was a sanctuary for an 11-year-old loner, it was heaven for exhausted mothers. Being foreign and a man made me a hot commodity. I struck up a conversation with Mommyrnsncc, and we decided to do the Internet-equivalent of “takin’ it back to her place” — we opened an Instant Messenger conversation.
We both wanted to connect to someone. She told me what her screen name stood for – Mommy, because she was a mommy, followed by the initials of her husband and all of her kids, including one that was stillborn. I sent her a picture of myself – a candid backstage snapshot of the lead singer of Savage Garden.
She sent me a picture of herself – a woman in her late 30s, mousy brown hair and squinty eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. She had on a denim dress, and two of her four kids were holding onto her legs as she stood by a sink full of dishes. She might’ve looked like me in 25 years.
I told her I had kids, too, twin boys. I sent her photos – a picture of one of the Hanson brats as a baby, and a scan of my friend as a kid. They were fraternal twins, so it’s okay that they didn’t look alike. I thought of everything.
I spent the next three years telling her my invented stories about an estranged wife, my struggles with manic depression (I was on Welbutrin and found it hard to bring up two kids with fatigue and dry mouth), and my failed attempts at dating. I told her that I once invited a woman for dinner, had a few glasses of wine, and then took a shower with her. In my pre-pubescent head, this was the height of scandal and eroticism. In her Mormon head, it must’ve been the same, because she lapped up every word. She told me about her absent husband, her four kids under five years old, and the feeling that kept her up nights – that she was not living the right life.
The story wasn’t true. But the feelings were. And in my childish way, I loved her and what she was giving me. I was too ashamed to talk to people in my real life about my problems so I channeled them into my Internet persona. She gave me the kind of empathy I so desperately needed.
She wanted me to call her, to visit her in Idaho, to meet her kids. After three years, I was 14 and knew that telling her the truth would be devastating. I deleted my accounts and left her to wonder what happened. I grieved her like I would grieve the loss of anyone I loved.
I didn’t tell a soul until almost ten years later.