Sometime in late 2007 or early 2008, Erin Phelan of Montreal found herself reading and commenting more and more at pop-culture analysis site the A.V. Club. It had undergone a drastic redesign in 2006 and only recently allowed commenters. Calling herself Phel, she found herself in a tight community of nerds who fed off each others’ wit and ability to poke fun at and recall the most obscure pop-culture references.
“Eventually, you started recognizing user names, locations, details, anecdotes,” she told the Daily Dot.
As she spent more time on the site, she developed an affinity for a commenter called Prison Wine. Sarcastic and dry, they both especially enjoyed the snarky columns of Amelie Gillette, now a writer for The Office.
“We’re both very cynical and jaded, and we just hate more than most people,” she recalled. “He was going through a rough time and would sometimes post brutally honest details. I guess we all kind of overshared. … It felt almost like a support group.”
The site grew rapidly, though, the beginning of an influx of users that makes the commenting system on the A.V. Club nearly unmanageable today. The original community of commenters found refuge on Twitter, where they could have private conversations with each other but still keep their relative anonymity.
Phel and Prison Wine found themselves directly engaging each other more and more. They finally shared Facebook info, then phone numbers, until finally, in summer 2009, they agreed to meet in real life.
She flew to meet him, Cameron McBride, in Dallas. She didn’t tell a soul before she left. “Not even my best friend, not my family, no one,” she said. “I was so certain this was insane. I was certain they’d talk me out of it. When we met at the airport I think we were both shaking.”
“I’ll never forget picking her up at the airport for the first time,” Cameron told the Daily Dot in a separate interview. “It was around 90 degrees and muggy as hell.
“I got to the airport early because I was nervous. We’d sent each other pictures and talked and whatnot but there was still the lingering fear of ‘what if she has a dick?’”
He spotted her first; she was on her BlackBerry.
“When she looked up, it was right into my eyes. One of the most amazing moments of my life.”
An emotional three-day stay led to an agreement to try a long-distance relationship. Cameron moved to Los Angeles for work. They started flying out to see each other regularly. Erin finally told her friends and family.
“They were all enormously supportive, if a bit shocked,” she recalled.
A year after that first summer meeting, the couple decided they’d had enough distance. In preparation for a visit from Cameron in June, Erin booked a Saturday morning appointment at the court house, where they got a civil union, surrounded by a small group of friends and family.
Because of tight immigration restrictions, it took almost an entire year before Erin could legally enter the country after their union. “I’d log into our account 10 or 20 times a day just to see if our status was no longer pending,” she said.
Finally, she was allowed to go. The two now live together in L.A. “We’re ridiculously happy,” Erin added. “We survived the holidays and are rounding the bend to our 2-year wedding anniversary.”
“Married life is amazing,” says Cameron. “Erin and I are so perfectly made for each other it’s ridiculous.”
Sometimes, even, they host fellow commenters from the old days on the A.V. Club who want to visit and see Los Angeles.
“These people are sort of a part of our lives in a very real but very abstract sort of way,” McBride said, “if that makes sense.”
Photo by Cameron and Erin McBride