It seems like everybody knows someone who did their dating on-line these days; most people don’t bat an eye over the idea of using the internet to find your true love any more. And I can see why: all these fancy algorithms do the work of testing your compatibility for you. You can scan dozens of photos without ever once having to sit across the table wondering why your friend set you up with this huge-nose guy.
You can make judgements without a single iota of human interaction. You can chat and feel the guy out without ever having to risk anything but a few minutes of your time. And in the process, you never get to know a person before they get the stamp of disapproval. I feel sorry for you.
Don’t you ever wonder if you might be passing by your soulmate, like ships in the night?
In the early 90s, the internet was still in its proverbial dark age; it was before any form of social media you can think of, before high speed internet, before most people could even interact with one another in real-time. It was a time when copper cable and a dialup modem on your phone line was not only the only way to connect, but it was also a time that predated most graphical browsers. It was an age of the internet that many people skipped right past, and it was in this proto-digital universe that I met the first man I ever fell in love with.
At this point, the ‘internet’ was, for most people, a connection made over telephone lines between two computers: yours, and someone else’s. The host computers, more often than not, were just a computer owned by an ordinary person in your area code. These ‘host’ computers were called Bulletin Board Systems (or BBSes). Since many of these BBSes could only have one person connected at a time, the term was apt. Your computer called the other, you connected, shared or read some text information, and you disconnected.
Where more than one person could connect at the same time—usually on a computer hosted at a university or an internet service provider—multi-user dungeon, or MUDs, became popular; they were a text-only grandfather of modern, massively-multiplayer online gaming. One MUD based in the UK became the place a great many of us called our virtual home. We would ‘chat,’ play games, and share information. And we created. Many MUDs gave its users the ability to write small programs and assign ourselves, ‘rooms’ and ‘objects’ within it descriptive text. So in this darkness and the silence that composed the virtual world of the MUD, we could build ourselves and our realms with words alone.
Like many other teenagers and young adults stuck in that awkward, gawky phase of our lives, I was drawn to this world where, in a sense, we were all blind together. We learned one another by the sounds of our written ‘voices.’ We formed bonds based on each others’ personality. And many of us found solace and companionship there for the better part of decade.
I was friends with many people, but especially friendly with a girl who was with an on line guy I knew vaguely, and she liked to keep us both about. The only reason we interacted was because of the girl’s stunning bouts of explosive PMS that would have both of us cowering in the proverbial electronic corner. We would ‘whisper’ to one another about random things rather than staring at the screen or finding something else to do, and ride out the unpredictable tide of her moods.
It was shortly before Christmas on the year I was 18 that they separated.
I, too, found myself on her shit list. And as teenagers are wont to be, I was so peeved at her indiscriminate unfairness that I decided to side with the ex, who, in my opinion, was a class-act for putting up with her for as long as he had. He was feeling low, and the “silence” stretched. So I typed into our little text-based universe: “Eh, you’ll find someone better. You’re a nice guy.”
And he responded, “I’m going to marry you, someday.”
It was the most peculiar and hair-raising moment of my life. This man I had known for years but had never met, never seen a photo of, never talked to on the phone, and had never even flirted with in text initiated our relationship with a sort of marriage proposal.
Have you ever experienced a moment of perfect clarity, where it feels as though you’ve been lifted a mile high, the blood rushes to your feet, and you can suddenly see the way everything is supposed to fit together like a vast, complex jigsaw puzzle?
One short sentence, and everything that I thought was reality bent. Six words that had struck me like a bolt of lightning. Suddenly, I saw the pattern that would let me fit the pieces of my life together the way it was meant to be. And I had to go to Canada.
Not surprisingly, my family thought I had lost my tiny teenage mind. My brief love life up until this moment consisted of work-flings that ended quickly and poorly. How could I possibly want to travel almost two thousand miles away to meet this stranger who might be a serial killer? They blocked me; they cancelled my plans to go meet him.
He and I continued to spend the bulk of our time in that blind and faceless space, typing sweet nothings to one another. We had begun talking to one another on the phone, but these were the days when long distance was 25c a minute and you could still buy a candy bar for 50 cents. Our whispered evening conversations cost us both dearly.
The World Wide Web took its first step towards graphical modernity with the huge success of AOL, but there were growing pains as new technology began to be adopted and people had to replace the old. Digital pictures were in their own infancy and impossible to send with the careless ease we do today. Today, my DSL provider’s download speed is about 4100 times faster than my first modem. Back then, a single image could take hours—days even—to download.
So we wrote letters by hand to one another as surprises, and about six weeks after we began our virtual affair, that was how I got my first glimpse of him: a single 5×7. I traced the outlines of the photograph and thought, “This is what he looks like.” But ironically, I was a little disappointed. Not because I didn’t like the way he looked. I was disappointed because the photo didn’t make him feel real to me; with words, he was a warm and kind person. The photograph only made him feel farther away.
Only three months had passed since that “marriage proposal” when I covertly embarked on what would become the greatest adventure of my life. I told my mother that some friends and I were going on a roadtrip, packed up my bag and had one of my friends drive me to the airport where I paid cash at the counter for a one-way ticket to Buffalo, NY. I navigated the Buffalo’s baffling transit to find my way downtown, and bought a ticket from Buffalo to Toronto by Greyhound bus.
I was a fairly small-town girl. Though it swelled during the winter months from the influx of snowbirds, at its peak, my sprawly “city” had fewer than 75 thousand residents hidden in the groves and well-manicured suburbs and an urban epicenter that topped out at five stories high. So it was with wonder that I gazed out the window as we rode the QEW, marveling that, from the Skyway, the Golden Horseshoe looked like the gods had spread the night sky on the ground.
I arrived at Toronto’s bus terminal, about fourteen hours after I had left my house, nearly dead on my feet. It was so much, much larger than I anticipated. It wasn’t until this very moment, in the dark crowds of an unfamiliar city of millions of beings, that I began to feel a little lost and overwhelmed. As cell-phones didn’t yet exist, I wasn’t sure how I was going to find this man I was supposed to meet from a single, bad photograph and a description of his trench coat. And then the doubt began to surge. Before, I couldn’t see anything but him. Now, I could see too much.
And he could see me, too.
What if he wasn’t here at all? What if he saw me and decided to leave me here?
Clutching my bag, I scanned the people waiting. And I saw a man, slouched on a bench, who looked like he maybe could be—but no. He turned his head away from my enquiring gaze. Steeling myself and fighting back tears, I turned and continued looking.
“Anne!” called a voice behind me.
I turned back; the same young man who had pretended not to know me stood up and came closer. He laughed. “Didn’t you recognize me?” he asked.
Now that we were only a few feet away from one another, I could see that his eyes were the same colour as mine. I hadn’t been able to tell from his photo. He was taller than I thought he would be. And his smile was different. There were a thousand details I had gotten wrong or had never imagined at all. And I had no idea what he was thinking about me.
Like a perfect gentleman, he took my bag, slung it over his shoulder, and took my hand. We walked to his car, mostly in silence. I was still dazed and exhausted, my mind in a whirl. I let him start the car, thinking that I was the biggest fool alive because nobody knew exactly where I was.
But then, my doubts fell away. It may have been the fact that, despite the fact he was driving a standard transmission, he would keep tangling his fingers with mine after every change in gears. It might have been the fact that he smiled the entire hour drive back to his place, or the fact that I jokingly had to remind him that if he didn’t keep his eyes on the road instead of on me, neither of us would get there alive.
We had known each other on an intimate level before our eyes had ever met. It felt like we were old souls, reunited. We had only 48 hours together, and we spent the whole time twined, marvelling at how we fit like we were meant to be together. There was a connection between us as unbreakable as the doors on Ft. Knox. And it was doubly precious because both of us realized how easily this could have never happened at all.
It took me three long, depressing days to ride the Greyhound bus back home to Florida. My mother’s opening salvo began with, “How was Canada?” And since I was busted, I replied that it was wonderful. Six weeks later, I packed everything I could fit inside my little car. I had a fight with my father that ended with him calling me a “mail-order bride (and left our relationship broken for almost a decade), and I left Florida for good.
Six months after I had moved up, and two weeks after I came back for long enough of a visit that my family finally got to meet this mystery man that I had eloped with, he fulfilled his promise to marry me. We exchanged our vows with only his parents standing witness in a chapel filled with candles and poinsettias (coincidentally located in the bar district). I was 19, and I was just old enough to legally drink a glass of champagne at the dinner we went out to afterwards.
If things had been different, we might have taken our time. But for us, marriage was a formality and a means to an end—a method for granting me my permanent resident status to Canada without engagement rigmarole and fewer questions about my spouse’s income. We were dirt poor and living in a one bedroom apartment, and as an alien technically only on a visitor visa, I wasn’t allowed to work.
But do I regret rushing to the altar? Becoming a citizen of a foreign country? Or taking the risk to meet him? Oh no, not for one instant. We spent our 10th anniversary with our four month old son tucked between us. Our 15th anniversary passed just this past December.
A few weeks ago, I found the letters I had written to him when I was 18, tucked in the back of his drawer. He had kept them all.
The soul bond we forged in the dark on a computer screen is still whole and as strong as ever. We have watched the marriages of friends and relatives who married after us crumble to dust after just a few short years. He still holds my hand. And though we’re both greyer now, and a few pounds heavier than we were when we shared our first kiss, we still remark at how well we fit together.