"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
A lot of people think Manti Te’o is a liar. His story, after all, is sensational: A Notre Dame football star claims he was the victim of an online hoax, fooled into a relationship by someone pretending to be a woman named Lennay Kekua. How could a person fall for that? Who could believe such a thing? I can’t tell you if Manti T’eo is a liar or not, but I know a thing like that could happen – because I was a victim, too.
I had a fake girlfriend. We met online. The relationship lasted for over a year. I lied to friends and family about the nature of our relationship. In fact, I’m still reluctant to tell them the whole truth.
“So, how did you guys meet?”
“Oh, we met on that cruise I took to the Bahamas last year.”
Actually, we met online. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I was always ashamed of that fact. And so I told lies. How else could I justify the fact that I was in a year-long relationship with a woman I never met face to face? That wasn’t normal — not for a relatively good looking, charming and intelligent guy. Online relationships are for shut-ins and the socially inept, right? So I lied to friends, family and casual acquaintances about how I met Jamie (which is not the name she used). Lies had been a part of our relationship since the very beginning. I just didn’t know how big the lies were.
It was midnight on a Friday, and I was on an online forum where would-be writers wasted time talking about writing rather than actually writing. I was hunched over my laptop, Adult Swim playing in the background. There I sat surrounded by unopened bills, court papers, empty soda cans, half-finished stories and faded Post-it notes. Desperately craving a beer I knew I couldn’t have and aching for social interaction. I was engaged in my new favorite hobby, arguing with people on the Internet, when a PM alert popped up on my screen. I didn’t get many personal messages these days. They were like manna from heaven. Click.
“Hey, I like what you said in your last post. That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Do you write for a living? You really have a way with words. Is that you in your avatar?”
Flattery will get you everywhere. I pushed back in my chair, my eyes locked on the screen. An unsolicited message? That didn’t happen in my life unless it was someone pitching Cialis, Viagra or cheap pain medication. This was something new. This was a woman contacting me. Puzzled but intrigued, I responded. I was a little suspicious. Playing it cool, I kept my response short. Never seem too eager. Women hate that.
“Thank you. Haha. Yeah, that guy doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Yes, that’s a picture of me.”
Breathe in. Check for misspellings and tone. Not too eager? Kind of aloof? Good. Exhale. Press send. Wait.
It took seven minutes for her to respond. Waiting for that alert to appear, I checked out her profile. It was relatively sparse. She was female, from Michigan, and 25 years old. She had three posts on this site — a lurker, but the posts were well-written and a reasonable length. Obviously she wasn’t a bot. I smoked a cigarette on the porch, and when I came back, she had finally replied.
“Haha. You’re cute. Gotta go to bed. Talk to you soon.”
Three and a half sentences. That was it, but for the first time in a long time, I went to bed with a smile on my face. Someone had reached out. Someone thought I could write. Someone thought I was cute. It had been a while since I felt this good.
Do I sound desperate to you? I should.
I was lonely. I was trying to rebuild my life and struggling every day to do just a little better. I was trying to kick an addiction to alcohol and pills that developed over the last few years. The real estate crash wrecked my life. I had just lost my job, my house, my girlfriend and my car. I was living back at home with my parents. My depression led to increasingly desperate and insane behavior. My addictions led me to a 30-day stay in the county jail and 13 months of monitored, intensive probation where the slightest slip-up would see me back in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit. I isolated myself. I felt like a complete failure.
In truth, I was. Online forums and social networking sites were the limit of my social interaction. I didn’t trust myself outside the walls of my home. I was downright agoraphobic. I had become a cliché — the adult man living in his parents’ basement. To say I was at an all-time low would be an understatement.
That was the state of my life when Jamie contacted me. In a funny way, she saved me.
That night, as I lay down to sleep, I found myself thinking, “Maybe doing the right thing does pay off …”
I woke up the next morning feeling good. I didn’t linger in the shower. I soaped up and off as quickly as possible. My hands shook brushing my teeth. No CNN for me today. No lingering over coffee. The 10 seconds it took to fire up my laptop seemed to take an eternity. I mistyped the website twice. I fired off a post about religion or some other nonsense. And finally, later that day: You have a private message.
Skip and stutter goes my heart.
“Hey Cutie. So you don’t believe in God?”
She called me cutie.
And that was that.
From then on we talked every day. We went from PM to IM. She was a dance instructor at her family’s studio. She graduated from the University of Michigan. She had a dog. She loved Harry Potter and Disney. I told her I was a struggling writer and about my financial and legal troubles. There was no subject off-limits, and we found we had plenty in common — with just enough differences to keep things interesting.
But I still didn’t know what Jamie looked like. That was kind of a big deal. For me, it’s the difference between friend and potential mate. I’m shallow like that.
One day I asked her to go ahead and friend me on Facebook. She took a while to reply.
“I don’t have one.”
“Oh the kids I teach would never leave me alone if I had a Facebook.”
That seemed reasonable. I knew other teachers who didn’t have a Facebook page.
“Why don’t you send me a picture then? I want to know what you look like.”
“Don’t have one on my work computer. I’ll send one when I get home.”
Warning flares flashed in my head. Who doesn’t have picture of themselves on their phone these days? Who doesn’t have a Twitter or Facebook? Even her IM avatar was a generic girl silhouette.
I waited. I didn’t have high hopes. Three hours passed.
New message alert.
I didn’t know what to expect when I opened the attachment. It was a picture of a short, brunette girl bundled in a Northface jacket. One arm around a friend, she posed for the camera on a snowy New York street. She was cute, but not my ideal. The girl in the picture was too short for my 6-foot-3. Maybe a little too much gum in the smile. But I liked her. She looked happy. She looked real.
That night I heard Jamie’s voice for the first time. If the picture was a slight disappointment, her voice was a huge disappointment. A more Yankee, Midwestern accent does not exist on this planet, but who cares what the voice sounds like if the things it says are the things you want and need to hear?
We began to talk every morning and night while IMing throughout the day.
A month or so later, I went to the Bahamas on a cruise. It was my first time out of the house in months, and I had a great time. Still, I thought about Jamie every day.
When I returned home, my mother noticed my attitude had changed, ”You’re in a good mood these days. Did you meet someone on the cruise?”
“Yeah, Mom, I met a girl named Jamie.”
That’s how my parents were introduced to Jamie. Over the course of the next year Jamie sent cards, talked to my nephews and niece on the phone, and even sent my mother a Christmas present. Meanwhile, my days were full of jokes, funny pictures, flirtatious texts and three-hour-long conversations.
Jamie started to say she loved me. Sure, she said it in a joking manner or in the midst of a laugh, but it was there. I never said it back.
One day an email came. She wasn’t the type to beat around the bush or write long-winded missives. It simply stated, “You know, I do love you. You’re my best friend.” I didn’t know what to say. How can you love someone you have never met, never seen, never held, never kissed? I realized I loved her too. She was the first person I thought of each morning and the last person I spoke with every night. I trusted her with my darkest secrets. She confided in me about her struggles with her sometimes abusive and manipulative family. Isn’t that what love is? Trusting someone with all of your secrets and knowing they will accept you regardless of your past?
That night I swallowed the painful lump in my throat and said those three words: I love you.
And I did.
We made plans to meet in New Orleans after New Year’s. It didn’t happen. The week before we were supposed to meet I get a call.
“Sorry, you can’t come. I’m staying with my aunt to save money.”
That was our first big fight.
“I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want an online girlfriend. I want a real girlfriend. I’m done.”
“No, please. I ‘m sorry. I’ll make it up to you.”
But I was out.
I made it three days before calling her. I said I was sorry for overreacting.
Her sometimes abusive family situation brought out the white knight in me. I wanted to save her. I wanted to rescue her. I asked if she wanted to come to Nicaragua with me. I was planning to move away as soon as my probation was up. What did I have to lose? No car. No dog. Bad credit. If I was going to leave and go on an adventure, now was the time. I wanted her with me.
She agreed. We planned to leave together. I would go first, and she would follow once I had a place for us. We would travel the world together. A month before I left she called. “I can’t go, but I promise I will visit. I just can’t leave my family! They need me.”
I left. I was gone for six months. We talked almost every day via Skype. She said she bought a webcam but couldn’t get it to work. Silly girls and technology, right? My friends down there called me santo — the saint — because I never chased girls. I was faithful. I talked about her as if we had met in real life. I showed my friends her picture. They talked to her over Skype.
I was almost a continent away in a land where mango comes in by the plastic baggie with salt and chile and Marlboros cost just $2 a pack. The cervezas were cheap and plentiful — so was the rum. I had friends again. I went surfing. I went out on the town with beautiful women from every corner of the world. Yet every night, I came home to my one-room apartment, logged on and talked to her.
She was my lifeline. But she was my chain.
I never committed to my new life. I was clinging to the old — clinging to an ideal. She never visited me in Central America. She bailed two separate times. One time she popped her eardrum from an ear infection. The other she was in a car wreck.
When I finally came home, the whole story finally unraveled. It took me a year to become suspicious and half an hour to discover the truth: Jamie was a lie.
It all came crashing down one night just before Christmas. Flipping through the channel guide and online shopping for Christmas presents, I came across a show called “Catfish” on MTV. For those who don’t know, “Catfish” is a show about online relationships in which the host arranges for people in longtime online relationships to meet for the first time. (It’s based on a documentary of the same name about online deception.) As far as I know, this has never ended well. At least one of the parties is always lying.
I laughingly texted her about watching the show, “Are you Catfishing me, babe?” She failed to reply. This had never happened before. She always replied. Half an hour later I received a text she was going to bed. What? We were the type of couple who spent two hours saying our good nights.
Alarms bells began to sound. I felt a cold sweat break out on my neck. I felt that twisting, churning sensation in my stomach that normally means: Run to the bathroom — you are going to puke.
It didn’t take long for me discover it all. I had a full year’s worth of comments and hints to work with. A few Google searches and some creative back channel searches on Facebook and I found her. Only it wasn’t her.
The person staring back at me was not the woman in the pictures she sent me. The surrounding cast was the same. I recognized her sisters, niece, nephews and even her dog, but the woman in the center wasn’t the woman I envisioned when I closed my eyes at night or when I talked to her on the phone. It was some woman I did not know. This woman wasn’t petite and well dressed with a big smile that showed a little too much gum. This woman was obese. She looked to be about 45. Feverishly, I scanned through every photo I could find. Maybe someone mislabeled the picture? But no. No one matched the pictures I had of Jamie.
I sat there. Numb. I could not even summon up anger. I was gutted. I kept thinking that this could not be true. I kept digging. I kept looking. I kept hoping. Finally there was no denying the truth. No amount of staring at a computer screen or typing in search queries was going to change anything. The woman I thought I loved — I did love — was a lie. A year’s worth of my life wasted chasing a fantasy.
The next morning, I opened up my IM window. She was online. She knew what I was going to ask.
“Is there something you want to tell me?”
“I’m a horrible person. I took it too far. It was just a silly game, but I fell for you.”
A silly game? This was my life. This was my heart. It was a silly game? It wasn’t a game to me. It was real — until it wasn’t.
I signed off and went back to sleep. That afternoon my grandmother called. “Is your friend still coming to Christmas?”
Choke. Swallow. “She’s not going to be able to make it.”
“Oh, well, you tell her Merry Christmas and we are sorry she can’t come. We were all so excited to meet her.“
Yeah, Grandma, I was excited to meet her too.
I tried to make sense of what happened. Did she think it wouldn’t matter? Did she ever plan on telling me? What was her end game?
Let’s not forget: How the hell did I fall for this? Am I really that stupid?
We’ve all been taught from a young age to identify predators. From our days at the park when we were constantly on the lookout for strangers offering candy to those nights where, stumbling from the corner bar, we quickly scanned parking lots and alleyways for “shady” characters. All our lives we have been taught to be wary of those who want to hurt us or take something from us. We’ve become good at spotting these people. Given my past, I was better at spotting these people than most.
I had traveled through dangerous parts of the world and hung with the dregs of society. I checked my watch after every handshake. But I was the perfect prey for this particular predator. A predator who did not smell of smoke, urine or booze. A predator who did not hide in the shadows. A predator who gave rather than took. That is what it took to snare me and take me for everything that mattered.
She didn’t want money. She didn’t want me to buy a set of steak knives or cheap prescription meds. She wasn’t trapped in Nigeria. She didn’t hide in the shadows. She never once asked me for anything — other than love. She used me just the same.
Every lie she gave was reasonable. Every lie was believable. And I never dug too deep, because she never gave me any reason to. I have spent more time researching $20 software than I did researching a woman I spent a year on.
Would I do it differently if I could do it all again? I would. But I also would urge you not to judge Manti Te’o or his family too harshly. When I look at him, I don’t see a liar who tried to gain fame to increase his odds of winning the Heisman. I see a victim whose shame probably runs very deep right now. It is humiliating to fall for an online hoax, and you will spin a web of lies to protect your reputation and pride.
I was isolated when I fell into my trap. Imagine Te’o’s isolation. He’s far from home. He’s Mormon at a Catholic school. He is a star athlete with no time to socialize and no friends beyond his teammates. A beautiful girl from his home who shares his faith contacts him. He falls into the trap.
I’m not saying it happened. I’m saying is if it did happen – I understand.
My fake girlfriend didn’t die. No, Jamie is still alive and well. Her real life was not so very different than the one she described to me. She still lives with her mother and sister. She still deals with a level of verbal abuse I couldn’t handle. She has no real plans to leave. She still works at the same place. I have no idea if she has a degree or not. She doesn’t use it. When we talk — yes, we still talk — I don’t ask too many questions. How could I trust the answers?
I’ve been asked why I still talk to Jamie — why I don’t hate her. The answer is: despite what she did, she is a good person. She helped me when I needed it most. She was a friend when I desperately needed one. She still needs a friend. If I can help her, I will. That’s what friends do — even if one breaks the other’s heart.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)