“22/F/Boston Seeks Perfect Romance”
by Gaelle Nguyen
“Ladies and Gentlemen”, the cheery voiced flight attendant announces. “We are preparing for our decent. Please turn off all electronic devices, fasten your seat belts and return your seats to the upright position. We thank you for flying with American Airlines and hope you have a wonderful stay in Boston.”
Finally, home. I open the door to my bedroom, throw my over-stuffed emerald Jansport backpack on the floor, and dive face first onto the bed. After thirty seconds of inertia, and my shoes still on, I flip the television on to catch the tail end of “The Notebook” on TBS. I firmly believe that romantic comedies fill single women’s minds with misconceptions of what love is. No actual relationship will ever compare to what we see onscreen. These types of movies convince women that knights-in-shining-armor-who-show-up-at-three-am-with-roses actually exist. They do not. Women will continue to feel let down as the disconnect between onscreen romance and reality becomes clear. And they will keep longing and searching for the perfect romantic illusion. This type of scheduling will continue to produce the “Sunday Night Blues” phenomenon that occurs in the aftermath of a lively weekend.
As the credits scroll down the screen, I reach for my bag to admire my new acquisition: a men’s Urban Outfitters T-shirt, size Medium, maroon colored with “K is for Karate Chop” printed in red block letters. It still smells like a combination of Red Stripe Men’s deodorant and cigarettes, and I don’t plan on washing it anytime soon. The reality of my weekend has finally settled in. I have just spent the last seventy-eight hours in Columbus, Ohio with my Internet friend Steve.
Writing about it seems slightly awkward, as I didn’t even tell my closest friends where I was going, let alone my parents. Internet friends are still frowned upon, considered either too nerdy or scary and dangerous. The increasing popularity of the Internet has changed the definition of relationships. Instant Messengers and Chat rooms have allowed users to form faceless relationships. The anonymity of online friendships allows one to be judged solely on personality, on the here-and-now, rather than past actions. The friendship remains contained within the Instant Messenger window. It begins when I log on, and ends when I log off. All I know about Steve is what he tells me, and vice versa. And that requires a certain amount of blind trust. Herein lies the central flaw of Internet friendships: they allow for a high risk of deception.
Steve and I originally met through a website called “thespark.com” four years ago. At the time, I was graduating from high school in Boston, and he was attending Ohio State University. Steve’s profile picture was a blurry headshot taken from an old digital camera with poor resolution. He was attractive, though that wasn’t what drew me to him. His cartilages on his ears were pierced, a poster of Pink Floyd hung on the wall behind him, and the corner of an amplifier caught the edge of the picture. I liked him instantly. Pink Floyd was one of my favorite bands, and the amplifier led me to suspect that he either played guitar or bass, both of which I had been practicing for years. Music played an integral part in solidifying our friendship. Though we both played guitar, we also shared an insatiable lust for new music. Common interests are usually what pull two random strangers together over the Internet. Why else would one really make the effort to reach out to a perfect stranger?
Throughout the years, we kept in touch via AOL Instant Messenger, e-mails, and eventually, we exchanged pictures and phone numbers. Steve became the equivalent of the modern day pen pal. It always amazes me how well you can read someone through a dialog box. By text alone, we understand emotion, tone of voice and volume. Capitals imply screaming, italics are used for emphasis. Instead of reading body language, we read font, style, size. Did he say “hello” or “HELLO!!”? And does the former express less enthusiasm than the latter?
Steve and I eventually communicated both through Instant Messenger and by phone. We racked up countless free nights and weekend minutes on our cell phones discussing everything from traumatic past relationships to contemporary prog-rock bands. Though he wasn’t physically present in my life, he became a great emotional anchor in times when the rollercoaster ups and downs of my post-teenage life seemed so dramatic. I trusted confiding in him, and revealing my most intimate thoughts. It was comforting knowing he was completely distanced from the rest of my social life. It’s an interesting paradox when the person you are able to be closest to, is also the person who is the most physically separated from you.
Talking to Steve on the phone became almost a ritual, occurring regularly between nine and ten p.m. We vented about work, complained about our bosses, shared an elaborate embarrassing moment, or even argued over Coldplay’s new album. Meeting the person who, for so long, was just a voice on the end of the receiver was a major turning point in our relationship. No matter how much I thought I knew him (the way his voice sounded in the morning or how grumpy he became when he was hungry), watching him laugh at my jokes and seeing him wake up next to me in the morning was an entirely different experience. Before I flew out there, I remember voicing my insecurities.
“What if we don’t have anything to say to each other?” I asked him.
“Well then we’ll play board games,” he said jokingly.
“No, I’m serious, Steve. What if…what if it’s weird?” I said. The butterflies in my stomach were making figure eights.
“Gaelle…You’re such a worrier, relax. I don’t see the point in worrying about things that you’ll most likely not be able to change anyway. You might as well worry about an asteroid falling from the sky and crushing you.”
His carefree nature and low expectations philosophy was shining through. I, on the other hand, couldn’t even sleep the night before my flight. No matter how accurate of a picture we thought we had painted of each other, there was no doubt in my mind that it was in some way idealized. I didn’t expect him to be perfect, but I expected him to be a certain way. That is the Steve I knew. In the same way, he probably had a certain idealized version of who I was. Though we knew what each other looked like from pictures and occasional webcam moments, I wondered what he would look like in 3-D. I had no idea how the weekend would go, but I had to just do it. After five years, I needed to know that what we had was real.
When I arrived at Columbus Port International Airport, my palms were moist and I had chewed the vast majority of my fingernails off. I kept my eyes glued to the floor as I approached the security exit where I knew Steve would be patiently waiting for me. I was terrified of making eye contact. Would there be disappointment in his eyes? I passed through the security doors and forced myself to look up. I saw him immediately. He was about 5’8, medium build, wearing a long-sleeved green button down shirt. His hands in his pocket, he stood against a wall, slightly cocky with a contagious smile. In a mixture of awkward smiles and chuckles, we managed to greet each other.
“Hey” I mumbled timidly wondering if I was supposed to hug him or shake his hand.
“Hi stupid” he said, smirking at my awkwardness.
I chuckled as he hugged me. Typical Steve, he was always able to make me laugh. We picked up right where we left off, and before we even made it to his car, I had already punched him in the shoulder for making fun of me.
For the first two days, we were both on cloud nine, basking in the elation of being with one another. On the third day, reality kicked in and I started to think about what was happening between us. Whether we lounged around watching movies, perused the mall, or went out for drinks, we were both as comfortable with each other in person as we were online, except in real life, there was sexual chemistry between us. Throughout the weekend, the line between friendship and something more became blurry. All of a sudden, Steve wasn’t just a platonic friend. He was someone I cared about and was attracted to. And he lived about a thousand miles away.
As I sat there on my bed, holding his T-shirt, I cried. Confused and emotionally drained from the weekend, it took me two days before I could even speak to Steve again. He was distant when I mentioned visiting him again. He avoided the subject until I finally called him out on it.
“You come here again, and have to leave. What then…I don’t know if you coming back a month after your first visit is gonna make things easier between us” he blurted over the phone. My heart dropped at the idea of never seeing him again, and my eyes started to water.
“Do you remember how hard it was leaving last time?” he asked in a softer tone.
“Yeah,” I remembered crying in his arms at the airport and feeling completely devastated.
“Do you think it’s going to be any easier the second time around… I mean, at best, we couldn’t hope for anything immediate to come of it… you had to know this. “The thought of never seeing him again crushed me. I had to face the facts. A relationship wasn’t financially, physically or emotionally possible, despite my lingering infatuation.
This was the last phone conversation we ever had. I couldn’t bear talking to him casually anymore. Hearing his voice was too painful and I had him delete my phone number as soon as we hung up. I had to detach myself emotionally from him, and moving on seemed impossible if he was still “present” in my life. His instant messages were constant reminders of how wonderful he was and of what I couldn’t have. But, how do you just ignore someone who has known you so well for the past five years?
Since then, we’ve gradually been able to speak to each other casually again. But it’s been hard. Our friendship had to start from scratch all over again. How do you revert back to a casual Internet friendship when you’ve shared such an intense infatuation? Even now, months later, my chest tightens when he speaks of new women in his life.
I would like to blame it all on bad timing and bad location. But in truth, I’m the one who chose to fall for him, I’m the one who went to visit, I’m the one who wanted more. The memory of our tryst wasn’t strong enough to hold on to. The memories became blurry and I can’t remember if it was the actual him I was infatuated with, or the idea of him. The distance between us allowed me to see an idealized version of the person on the other end of the receiver. Instead of having to face his flaws, I had room to construct who I thought he was, or should have been. And our relationship ultimately failed when the disconnect was made clear.
The idea of what Steve represented was appealing because he embodied the “impossible relationship” paradigm. In theory, a relationship between us was never feasible. Yet, “E-harmony” and movies like “You Got Mail!” tapped into my girlish dreams of romance, and for a minute there, I think I actually believed in the “love conquers all” (even distance) theory. But it doesn’t. We learn the hard way that for a relationship to be successful, it requires the right person, the right location and the right timing.
The distance of the Internet and the portrayal of love in the media allow for young adults to idealize relationships. They shape young adults’ perception of how relationships are supposed to work. We forget that onscreen romances are constructed for the purpose of entertainment, and are not meant to be realistic. Even the relationships on so-called reality shows are edited to display only the “perfect relationship,” while the arguments, the fights, and the “work” of the relationship are often cut out. We never get to see how a relationship pans out in the long run because the story line ends within ninety minutes with a “And they lived happily ever after” ending. Yet, no matter how jaded we become, part of us will always long for that perfect “one.”