In the first AOL instant message I got from my husband, he asked if I was OK. Back then he wasn’t my husband; he was just a boy from camp.
I’d estimate it was around 4pm on Sept. 11, 2001, and I lived in Manhattan. I had just returned to my dad’s house uptown after walking home from my high school downtown, and my instinct was to hog the phone line so I could sign on to AOL. Matt and I hadn’t talked since the last day of camp, where we had met that summer, but a mutual friend informed me that he had a crush on me a few days before. I was intrigued, but admittedly more excited about another camp boy who IMed me shortly after Matt did. It turns out that the other camp boy and I didn’t chat much after that, but Matt and I kept talking.
I was an early adopter of AOL, with a mother working in media and a father in one of those software jobs dads always have where you don’t know quite what they do. Our homes were littered with those CDs promising 1000 hours of service, and middle school friends were trading emails like we had pogs three years before. I was ChunkyCat8 (why?), CandyGirl1029 (why!), something to do with ladybugs, and finally Papayajaya1.
AOL appealed to me the way it did to most chubby, frizzy-haired teens who were not technologically inclined, whose crushes always went for their more conventionally attractive friends, and who had recently seen You’ve Got Mail. I changed the quotes in my AOL Instant Messenger profile almost daily, and fretted over the right combinations of font and color to make my IM voice look as bright and edgy as I wanted to be in real life. I started conversations with acquaintances who made me feel shy in person. I imagined I had inner beauty and wit, and that in chatrooms and AIM was where I could shine until that outer beauty showed up. And slowly, the IRL me started to become more like the me I allowed myself to be online.
Matt and I built our relationship over AIM. New Yorkers know that living on opposite sides of the city can feel like a long-distance relationship, so when you’re 14 and the guy you like lives in Connecticut, it feels like he’s away at war. We used AIM because it was our most practical option; like many teenagers in the year 2001, we didn’t have cel phones. We did have computers in our respective bedrooms, though, and parents who weren’t expecting phone calls after dinner hours.
It started like most teen flirtations did. We quoted lots of Blink-182 lyrics to each other and built empires out of inside jokes. We talked about what we wanted to do when we got out of high school, and tried to make each other jealous by mentioning other girls or boys in our lives. Once, we made the exact same joke at the same time, something about the word “shenanigans,” and I was convinced we were soulmates. Little by little we let each other into our lives, recorded in hot pink and orange text on a black background.
And after our conversations, I’d analyze. I copy/pasted the moments Matt said he liked me into Word docs, just as proof that they’d actually happened. I read over what I said that made him go “hahahaha,” trying to figure out what was so funny about it so I could make sure to do that again. I parsed apart every conversation with the cool girl he was clearly falling for, trying to figure out who she was and where she went when the browser closed.
Over the years, other friends have agreed that the initial appeal of AIM was the ability to pre-edit. In person, I tried too hard to make jokes and they backfired. I didn’t know how to read a room yet, and I was thirsty for attention in a way that wasn’t unique to me at all, but somehow seemed like I was the only sufferer. The split-second between the thoughts forming in my brain and traveling to my fingers provided a filter that my mouth didn’t seem to have yet, giving me crucial time to re-word or think of jokes and play them off as if I’d just been looking away from the screen for a second. AIM provided the illusion of chill. It was a phone call I couldn’t mess up.
Impostor syndrome starts young. It was easy to think that this funny, smart person charming the boy across the Long Island Sound wasn’t me, just some spirit I channeled through the keyboard. Ghostwriter, but for flirting. Yet she was me, or at least a better version of me who didn’t quite exist yet but who I was in the midst of creating.
We started talking in September, and sometime that winter, Matt invited me to his junior prom. It was the first time we would see each other since the summer we met. The second I got off the Metro North, I devolved into the awkward, bumbling kid I knew myself to be inside. All night long, I swung wildly between refusing to engage with anyone and trying to be the loudest, wildest, weirdest one there just so my nervous energy had somewhere to go. I started a conga line. It was, like many proms, a disaster.
Our AIM personalities were us at our core, stripped of our anxieties and social ineptitudes and that prevalent teenage worry that somebody, somewhere is always watching and judging.
Looking back, Matt wasn’t as funny and smart as he was online either. It could have easily been another story of the illusion of the Internet shattering reality—that charming, adorable person who makes you laugh like nobody else not being the “real” them. But I still liked him, and he still liked me, because I think we knew the people we were online were the real ones. Our AIM personalities were us at our core, stripped of our anxieties and social ineptitudes and that prevalent teenage worry that somebody, somewhere is always watching and judging. And stripped of those, an actual relationship emerged. I could make the jokes that popped into my head and see that they actually made him laugh. I could admit thoughts and fears and find him still there, and he could do the same with me. And these nightly conversations showed me that, if I allowed myself to be this person offline, I might actually be able to pull it off.
Matt and I dated and broke up for the reasons teenagers always break up: We were going to different colleges and hypothetical sex loomed large. We vowed to stay friends, but he pulled away, and for months the bigger heartbreak was not that he didn’t want to date me but that our nightly AIM conversations were no longer a part of my life.
Eight months later Matt emailed me, apologizing and asking to be friends again. I didn’t know where the words were coming from when I wrote him back, but they sounded like they were coming from that better version of me. I told him I wanted to be friends but it wasn’t going to be that easy. I told him he needed to prove I could trust him not to float away again, and that if this was just an attempt to assuage his own guilt, I wasn’t participating. I was 17 and had never stood up to a man (who am I kidding—boy) before. In real life, I was the “cool girl” who was always down for doing whatever the boys wanted. Yet here I was, protecting myself against what may have been him bullshitting me. And I didn’t care what kind of girl that made me.
The Internet gets a bad (but deserved) rap for allowing people to say things they wouldn’t say in person, to hide behind anonymity and perform abuse. But the Internet can also free you to say the things that need to be said without fear of someone seeing you cry. Being online allowed me to be bolder than I may have come off as in person, but also steadier, stronger, and braver. It allowed me to try things. In person, I would have folded under his smile, said “of course we can be friends,” just so there was no lull in the conversation. Online, I could be necessarily selfish, taking the time to consider my own needs before giving in to anyone else’s—which, it turns out, is important in a relationship.
The Internet gets a bad rap for allowing people to say things they wouldn’t say in person. But the Internet can also free you to say the things that need to be said without fear of someone seeing you cry.
As evidenced by our marriage, Matt was not bullshitting me when he reconnected. We became friends again, dated, and eventually wound up here. And throughout that relationship, AIM (and later Gchat) was there. It’s what kept us tied together in college, throughout world travels, and even in our 9-5 jobs: A little window reminding us that there is someone on the other side who has always been there, who has seen the growth and change, and who was ready to stay through it.
We are, of course, different people than we were 15 years ago. I watched him become more understanding as I became more confident. I look back and see the strides we’ve taken in communicating with each other, something that’s still easier for me to do with the guidance of a blinking cursor. We would have grown regardless of the Internet because that’s what happens between being 15 and 29. AIM was our catalyst, though. It allowed us to pretend to be who we eventually really were. It allowed us to change, in inches. It showed us who we could be, together or apart, IRL.
Illustration by Jason Reed