I wrote this last year in response to a writing prompt about a choice I made that changed my life. I couldn't find a spot to publish it but listening to Bill Clinton's long and rambling (and secretly genius) speech at the DNC Tuesday night seemed like a good enough reason to post it here.
In 2002 the Internet was a different place than it is today. There was no Youtube, Gmail, Facebook, or Twitter. Amazon was pretty much just a place to buy books. Online dating had a tinge of stigma to it--I knew couples who met on dating sites that made up fake "real life" meeting stories. Far from a haven for trolls, in 2002 the internet was a community where I found friendship, the basis for my career, and even family.
After graduating from college in 2001, I found a job as a copywriter for a small Chicago advertising firm. The work was uninspiring, but a friend pointed me towards a handful of websites that published humor and creative writing, saying that I might find a venue for the type of writing I found (unpaid) joy in--humor, essay, fiction, experimental. In between adding weather-based puns to member letters for a local riverboat casino ("the weather is cold but the slots are hot!"), I churned out and submitted stories to any online publication that looked promising.
In October 2002, a Detroit-based site I contributed humor to, Haypenny, was celebrating its first anniversary with a party and reading. I was "Internet friends" with several of its contributors, which was my 21st-century way of saying "penpals." These friends and I frequently wrote for the same sites and exchanged complimentary emails. Often, those emails turned into chatty IM conversations. A few words on a screen burst into real friendships, sometimes consummated by face-to-face meetings and real friendships.
After I received my invitation to the Haypenny party I contemplated attending, but I learned that Detroit and Chicago are not as close to each other as I had assumed. Either a very long drive or a pretty short flight, it was going to be inconvenient getting there. I was only 23 and living at home with my parents, borrowing their car and goodwill until I saved enough to move out. That was a long haul to meet some people I had never met before. If it turned out to be awkward, I was stuck. In Detroit.
"You have to come," wrote my friend Lindsay, an effusive, doll-faced blonde in New York whom I became close with but had never met. "Ben and Steve are going to be there. There will be one boy for you and one for me. Just kidding. Not really! Come on!!!"
Ben lived in Austin and Steve lived in Phoenix, and, like Lindsay, we had corresponded but never met. Ben was interested in publishing a book of my humor pieces, while Steve's work made me laugh, sweet and absurd stuff like fake letters he had submitted to Seventeen magazine's Traumarama section (sample: "I thought that my date was this total hottie who was on the baseball team and who I'd been crushing on all year. I discovered that it was only a broom with a balloon taped to the top of it.")
Lindsay convinced me. I agreed to fly up for one night. I probably would never get the chance to meet so many Internet friends in one fell swoop again and decided to go for the meetup, the party, the reading (we were going to perform pieces we had published in Haypenny onstage) and maybe the promise of romance.
I had always felt sort of flirty with Steve, the guy from Phoenix, but I was still technically with my long-distance college boyfriend at the time. I didn't think I liked Steve but I remember feeling a little thrill when I first saw him in real life and realized he was cute (all the photos of him online were goofily posed.) He was fairly quiet that evening but I got a sense of who he was during the reading portion of the event, when Haypenny's contributors performed onstage. Steve read before Lindsay, who was waffling over whether it would be too embarrassing to say the word "rimjob" in her piece. As a preamble to his piece, Steve said, "Lindsay's embarrassed about saying the word 'rimjob' in her story so I'm just going to get it out of the way and say it for her. Rimjob, rimjob, rimjob. There." And they say chivalry is dead.
That evening Lindsay and I stayed up all night gossiping and drinking with the excitement of a slumber party or summer camp. Steve had come down with a miserable cold, but he still stayed up with us. It wasn't romantic in the least, on Steve's or my end. But a few days later Steve sent me some VHS tapes of silly videos he had made and I popped them in the VCR with a sense of excitement that surprised me. I guess I had a crush on him after all.
The crush turned into some friendlier emails and phone calls between Steve and me. Then, after my college boyfriend and I broke up, the correspondence turned into visits, which turned into "I love you" and then long distance dating. Then, same-city dating. We had been dating for five years when Steve proposed and then we got married and bought a house together in Chicago. Then we got a dog and had a baby and then a new house and another baby. Two careers, too: he turned his funny videos into a successful film business and I started supporting myself with my writing, sometimes actually getting paid to write the things I used to submit for free to sites like Haypenny.
This, in essence, is the actual story when people ask me how the two of us met although it's so much faster to just say "We met online...sorta." But it was different than online dating (not that there is--or was ever--anything wrong by online dating.) We were experiencing the adolescence of the internet as we know it today, when it wasn't obscure but it also was also unique to have a dedicated online presence, and we rode that wave--many of our friends from those early days went on to cultivate careers as journalists, authors, critics, startups managers, editors, which wasn't surprising in the least.
We were still years away from Snapchat and Facebook and Twitter and ubiquitous comments sections and instant opinions. Young and bored and creative, we spent our free time (so much free time!) writing, for ourselves, for each other, to each other. That type of free time seems so long ago, now, between our jobs and boring adult problems and the ways the internet mutated to steal more of our time and become a slicker, faster, more anonymous and sometimes crueler place. But until we--and the internet--grew up, we spilled words on a virtual page, clicking "send" because it was faster and cheaper and more instantly gratifying than sending a letter yet, looking back, more quaint and thoughtful and relatively time-consuming compared to the way most of us communicate now.