Before “Catfish”: Meeting women online

You might say I was asking for it. Advice, that is.

In search of a wise, older lesbian, I wrote. I can’t tell if I’m gay.

The responses pinged into my inbox; eighty in a day. Even at 19 I scoffed at the eager 25-year-olds with their blithe advice (“Practice saying you’re gay in front of the mirror,” “Buy some pride rings and see how they feel.”) I was looking for a woman out as long as I’d been alive. Some responses were laughably predatory, like the plumber from Jersey who offered to drive cross country to “help me experience myself.” Then there was Lauren’s.

I don’t know about wise, but I’m definitely older. 36 to be exact. How can I help?

That was in October. By November, my parents had threatened to stop paying for college. A misguided response, certainly, but what would you do if your book-smart, ostensibly straight daughter snuck away from Thanksgiving dinner to email some dyke she’d met online?

No one had heard of “catfishing” in 1999; even if you could have Googled the term, by the time your dial-up internet connected, you’d already be twitching on the bottom of the sly fisherman’s boat. Now my mom plays Words with friends via five different devices, but back then she thought I’d come down with ADHD because I couldn’t stop running upstairs to check my Electronic Mail. And actually meeting someone on the internet? Only flesh-eating Germans did that.

Lauren wasn’t German. Nor was she catfishing me, in fact; in retrospect I’m not sure who lured who. I prefer clothing purchased resale, books with scrawled dedications to former owners, chocolate chip cookies broken into bits. The fresh, blank canvas of New bores me. I’ve never cared for people my own age. A former drug addict struggling to finish college, Lauren lived in Los Angeles with her partner — a blank canvas she was not. But that’s what I liked about her. Well, that and the promise of sex.

Of course I didn’t tell my parents that. The only knew Lauren existed because when she called our landline I couldn’t think fast enough to lie. Instead I told them we’d met on a listserve, which sounded space-age-terrifying to them but now it’s like saying we met when our covered wagons crashed into each other. My father forbade me from contacting her from their home. I tried to explain that AOL didn’t technically originate in their home but my dad’s grasp of the internet’s workings is pretty sketchy even when he isn’t apoplectic with rage.

Back at college, I spoke to Lauren daily. The phone’s ring or my email’s chime rousing me from shallow sleep. My dorm room seemed a nexus of possible adulthood, everything outside receding. After nearly three months, she flew to the midwest to visit me. When I remember our meeting, I think mostly of contrasts: January’s heart-stopping chill/the shared coffee that burnt my tongue; fizzy anticipation as Lauren moved to kiss me/the stomach-clutch-dread of watching her taxi’s taillights blend with ambient city light.

Faith is a tricky concept, especially for someone like me, afraid of disappointment, careful to steel myself against hope. What Lauren and I had wasn’t technically a relationship, and its rapid disintegration surprised no one, not even me. Probably my parents believed she’d gotten what she wanted and now had no need for me. Sometimes I believed that too. Still, three years later, after I’d graduated, I found Lauren again. In the interim her phone number had changed; she’d closed her email account. I turned again to the increasingly outmoded listserve, sent off another electric message in a virtual bottle. She responded and we began again.

I don’t remember whether my parents told me moving to Los Angeles was a mistake. Maybe it was too obvious to say aloud. I do know they wanted to spare me the pain of what looked like a misguided, even dangerous choice.

Lauren won’t shop resale. The books she buys are pristine, their bindings stiff. Leftovers disgust her. Tepid coffee too. I knew all of this when I moved to in with her. I also knew she had given up on college, now dodged letters from her school loan companies, calls from collections, the IRS. Single now, she had developed a drinking problem. Though I was unaware of the latter, just like my parents, I knew whatever happened next was bound to hurt.

We’ve since discussed our time together, the three year montage of high emotions set against Los Angeles’ vibrant artificiality. If we’d been celebrities we’d have made the cover of every tabloid, fucking in parking garages, shooting down Silverlake’s steep hills at seventy, embroiled in our latest terrible fight. Lauren’s route to sobriety piloted us through the sort of terrain I couldn’t have charted on my own. Midwestern, routinized, prone to introspection, I learned all my bold moves from her. She’s apologized since for the chaos, but I’ve told her I didn’t really mind.

When you deem a relationship successful, usually you’re describing years of contentment, link-armed street-crossings and quiet diner meals before someone slips in the shower and the grandkids show up in starched shirts to mourn. But what looks like a failure on paper might just be a willingness to leap. Even without the specter of Catfishing, relationships are treacherous, their pros and cons not easily quantified. Lauren and I may not have stayed together, but the early faith our connection bred granted me something rare: a life without regret.

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