HEAVEN: From fantasy life to fantasy life
For a year I knew Sam only as a teenage pickpocket named Jason. He knew me as Trace, a 15-year-old junkie and sidewalk artist. We played these characters in a text-based alternate reality game called MUSH (Multi-User Shared Hallucination), set in New Orleans. We indulged in this fantasy life together several nights a week in complex and creative sessions that would last for hours on end. Throughout the course of that year our homeless troublemakers became inseparable best friends.
Eventually, Sam and I felt comfortable enough to step out from behind our masks and get to know each other. He was in California and I was in Ohio. One Halloween we arranged to meet in the real New Orleans, and together we walked the streets we had pretended to inhabit for so long. Sam turned out to be a tall, handsome 23-year-old with intense dark eyes and long brown hair. Apparently he didn't mind my being a petite 20-year-old blonde.
I still don't put much stock in finding love online -- at least not if love is what you're specifically looking for. It's so easy to lie in personal ads and romance chat rooms, and the chances of a disappointing reality are great. Through one tragic experience, I learned that it can even be dangerous. I suspect it worked out for Sam and me because we were only expecting friendship, and so we were honest with each other from the start.
Needless to say, the seeds of love were planted that Halloween in New Orleans and blossomed when we met again that following winter. We are living in Columbus, Ohio, now and have been together for three years.
-- Whitney Prince, Columbus, Ohio
PURGATORY: Dangerous sex, nifty boys
Grief was the impetus for going online. My mother was dead and I wanted to dispel the white noise of it in sweaty, inconsequential sex -- grief sex. So in fits and starts, my ad was constructed -- literate, witty and overtly sexual. My roommate fluffed out my hair, stood on a chair, and aimed a digital camera down my shirt. I named myself Erota after the muse of love poetry and mimicry, and I was launched onto the wide Nerve sea.
For over a year, I dated with a mixture of ferocity and boredom. My friends stopped, but I continued. My grief sex was still floating out in the distance -- white, angry and vengeful. The dates themselves, however, were becoming stale, tiresome. At the end of the night sometimes we shook hands or kissed awkwardly at my front door, promising to e-mail or call later -- but we wouldn't. Because I still hadn't found my grief sex, that place where the senses blank out.
When I eventually slept with my first boy, it was a disaster. I put him in the doctor's office with a wrenched penis, and he was startled into an epiphany.
"I don't want to be that guy who's slept with over 21 women when he's not even 30 yet!" he wailed.
I rolled away, sleepy and numb. "It doesn't really matter, Scott. You don't have to count this one."
"I think I sprained something here," he said, distracted by himself.
Eventually recovering from his herniated penis, Scott embraced our friendly sexual status, but sex with him seemed to provoke emergency health crises. On our last night together, before he moved back to the East Coast, his orgasm slammed shut his windpipe and I hovered over him clutching my cordless phone, ready to speed-dial 911, trying to help him breathe.
It's not a matter of girly pride that I averaged almost a date a week last year. With last year's terrorism, being victimized by the new economy, and my mother's death, I can see my dating as a distraction, a kind of sexual occupational therapy.
But there are some boys I can't forget: David, who sang eight songs in a rundown bar called the Mutiny on a cold Wednesday night, including Sammy Davis Jr.'s "Candyman." I couldn't forget Joel, the journalist who sent me a volume of erotic poetry on Valentine's Day and traded naughty, naughty e-mails with me from his office; or Norbert, the German composer, who wanted to sell his gospel-music version of "Othello." There was Eric from Milwaukee, with his sweet poet's heart and the most generous spirit of any man I've known; Ben, the intense existential loner/lover who bit, bruised and thoroughly consumed me. And Steve. Steve was the winner of my DeliaFunGirl New York Sweepstakes. It still stings to think about him.
There are no happy endings here, but no awful ones, either. The grinding drive to kill my past grief has gone. I've hidden my ad. Nevertheless, on my Palm Pilot, the first weekend in December has been blocked off, reserved for Matthew, a funny, cranky schoolteacher from New England who uses the word "bowdlerized" in ordinary sentences. We shall see.
-- Delia Coleman, Chicago
HEAVEN: Wacky begets wonderful
I had never ventured into the world of online dating, so when a friend suggested it as a way for us to meet people, I reluctantly agreed and did everything I could to sabotage the process from the get-go. I wrote a wacky profile, posted a mediocre picture, and submitted it all to an online dating site based in a country more than 5,000 miles away -- Spain. The stigma that exists toward online dating here in the States doesn't exist in Europe, so profiles of attractive (if not ridiculously handsome) men were abundant.
The system worked like this: Setting up a profile was free, and sending a virtual kiss to members was free. However, if you wanted to contact someone directly, or respond to a virtual kisser that had contacted you, there was a nominal fee. Virtual kissers could also pay the fee upfront to have the kissee contact them free of charge.
For the first few weeks I would wake up to five to 10 e-mails -- virtual kisses from all over the world. From straightforward Japanese businessmen looking for "sex partner American" to romantic Argentinians seeking "mi amor de toda la vida" -- no profile really motivated me. I gave up on the idea that The One was just a click of a mouse away.
That is, until I got a virtual kiss from the lovely resort city of San Sebastián in the Basque country. Iker had paid the fee for me to contact him and I was in the middle of planning a trip to Spain to visit family. At worst, I'd have someone to recommend places to see. At best, I might have a shot at a Spanish summer romance.
We must have exchanged hundreds of letters and instant messages because by the time we moved our conversations to telephone, we were old friends. It was never awkward, since we both approached our relationship as a long-distance friendship -- nothing more. He sent me homemade CDs of bubblegum Spanish pop and "Operación Triunfo," a "Big Brother" meets "American Idol" TV show that spawned dozens of one-hit wonders. I sent him American newspaper articles about ETA, the Basque liberation terrorist group. He would dedicate silly songs to me on "Los 40 Principales," a Madrid radio station that can be heard via the Internet. I would call him from my jazz gigs so he could listen to my songs live.
As the date of my Spanish vacation approached, we shared our worries about meeting each other's expectations, but took comfort in the fact that neither of us was in love. We were simply infatuated with the idea that across the Atlantic was someone who cared, for no good reason other than the fact that you were cool to talk to.
As my train approached Málaga, the Andalusian port city and our chosen meeting place, my stomach was so tight that I thought I would pass out. As I struggled with my rolling suitcase, I spotted Iker at the end of the concourse. We had jokingly agreed how we would greet each other -- two quick kisses, Spanish style. But as we walked to meet each other, the hours of interpersonal communication seemed to count for something and we embraced for a good five minutes, laughing about how our plans to keep it casual had gone out the window.
Needless to say, seven vacations, two years and hundreds of nonvirtual kisses later, we live in Madrid and are engaged. Who would have thought that a Midwestern Latina English teacher would live happily ever after with a Basque doctor? As I ride the metro to my flamenco class every Friday morning, El País and cafe cortado in hand, I ponder that question only to remember that not pondering anything is what got me here in the first place.
-- Silvia, Madrid, Spain
HELL: No offense, but ...
I went on a double date with a guy I met online -- first to dinner, then the four of us went back to his place to play cards. I'd decided on the way home that I wasn't interested and was planning to tell him, when I received the following message (needless to say, this was the last time I corresponded with him):
"I had a wonderful time; I really did. In fact, I am hoping that we might have another wonderful night together soon.
"Now I want to say something that is painful for you to hear. My very first impression of you was, she is fat. There's that word. If you are still reading (please, please still be reading), I want you to know the truth. It made me uncomfortable ... at first. Then I remembered who I was sitting next to, all the pleasant and pleasing things you said, how nice it made me feel when I was at my desk and you buzzed me with a 'hi.' And I felt incredibly foolish and embarrassed at my first reaction.
"Do you know any linguistics? Look at the words 'fat' and 'skinny.' Notice anything? Look at the words 'good' and 'evil.' Any similarities? 'Skinny' comes from the word 'skin.' It refers to famine and starvation -- 'skin and bones,' 'all skin,' 'skinned alive.' 'Skinny' is too negative a word to even warrant its own root, but instead is built from another word. And it is two syllables -- too uncommonly said to develop into a monosyllable word (this is significant in English, more than most other languages).
"'Fat,' on the other hand, is used in 'fat of the land,' 'fat and ripe.' The highest sacrifice in ancient temple Judaism was the fat, the best part of the animal. Fat means wealth, success, beauty. What a bizarre century we live in, Shaun! We have completely inverted the values of the preceding 10 millennia.
"But this doesn't make you feel any better. Let me tell you about how I feel, then. I am short. I have bad teeth. I am skinny. And I am quite self-conscious about this. I am afraid to smile; you have a beautiful smile! Please, smile more. I worried that you'd look at me and say, 'Oh, well, better throw him back.'
"You are far too smart not to get my points. Let me change tack. I like you. I really enjoyed this evening. At times you seemed almost surprised to be enjoying yourself.
"So ... I've said my bit of wallowing in self-absorption. (You laughed at my jokes. You got my jokes. What the heck!? Where did you come from?) I have some upcoming things I'd love to take you to, but I don't want to ask unless I believe you'll probably say yes.
-- Shaun Weber