My Internet Romance, Age 14, With An Older Man

In the 1990s through the turn of the century, it was common for adults of parenting age to harbor a certain rigid fear of the internet, visualizing it as some weird and untenable land containing two types of citizens:  teenage boys longing to escape into a virtual world, and serial killers/pedophiles camped out at their keyboard eagerly waiting for children to log into MySpace. These people probably apply free clip art to their office presentations even to this day.

I was fortunate to be raised by parents who had no fear of technology but rather harbored a practical understanding of the role connected computing was likely to play in the future and as such encouraged me to become highly engaged therewith, so as to be employable and socially relevant in the future. From the time it became technically possible for our family to have ‘email accounts’ my father made one for me.

I was given cursory instructions for how to use the internet , then essentially left to my own devices for reasonable periods of time provided I behaved and fulfilled my obligations. It meant nothing to me if I were not permitted to go to a school dance, but being ‘grounded from the internet’ was a disaster. I was explicitly directed not to reveal personal details such as our home address and telephone number to other internet users, but besides that I was an adolescent  who had been raised with a healthy and responsible fear of strangers and required little further direction for my safety.

The idea that ‘the internet’ was a faceless commune charged with self-expression through text was exciting to me;  I actively did not want to really ‘be myself’ and was excited by the idea that I could be represented by an alias, behave ‘mysteriously,’ correspond with COLLEGE STUDENTS and hopefully be mistaken for a computer hacker or fictional vampire because of the vagaries with which I wrote on newsgroups.

I had an account for email and for Usenet where my name was ‘Delilah.’ Largely I found it a ‘pain in the ass’ to like browse through all the newsgroups looking for things in which I was interested, and if memory serves, the number of newsgroups I could ‘bookmark’ for immediate access was limited to three anyway, so my navigation of the various rec-dot-this and alt-dot-that was limited to three groups: One related to the Japanese animated television show ‘Sailor Moon,’ the English dub of which I woke up at 5:30 in the morning to watch on the staticky local TV station channel 56; one related to popular grunge music, and one related to poetry. I was a very ‘cool tween’ in the 1990s [no].

Through these newsgroups I made a few ‘friends’ with whom I corresponded via email on a fairly regular basis. Examples include an older teenage girl who also liked the show ‘Sailor Moon,’ and a college student at the University of Alberta who, like me, enjoyed over-analyzing Pearl Jam lyrics [“is Eddie saying ‘ritual’ or ‘little one’ and then does that change the context of ‘crooked arm’”], who had his OWN RADIO SHOW and about whom I knew basically nothing but on whom I fancied myself developing a very serious crush.

Even at a young age I understood that ‘people on the internet’ held their own kind of social currency and I developed an interest in corresponding with the people whose posts on the newsgroups I thought were the ‘best’ or the ‘most interesting.’ That was why I was so excited when a Kurt Cobain tribute poem I published on rec.arts.poetry I think on April 5, the anniversary of his death, resulted in an email from another user of rec.arts.poetry, if I am correctly remembering. I can recall an embarrassing number of words from the Kurt Cobain tribute poem and feel too mortified to re-render them so just suffice to say the poem was not good. I rhymed ‘Cobain’ with ‘pain’ [embarrassing].

I also remember the name of the 30 year-old man who emailed me in praise of my poem and began a ‘cute’ correspondence with me during which we largely shared poetry with one another, but I will ‘redact’ it from this article to protect his privacy. I don’t really remember the substance of the communication except for maybe I wrote about being frustrated with school. I focused on sounding mature and intelligent in the emails.

The person usually replied to my emails in a timely fashion, which was exciting to me because replies from the University of Alberta student often took weeks to arrive if they arrived at all. I would run home from the school bus stop and quickly go to the computer and dial up to the internet. Even if I had to pee I would sit in the air conditioned room listening to the discordant howling and hissing of the modem tick-stepping me into a state of being connected to limitless others. I would hold my breath over the 1-5 minute process of downloading my email, watching a black and white wheel spin, whereby I usually had 1-3 emails coming, as a window would tell me while showing me a ‘progress bar’ to  indicate how long the emails were taking to download. Sometimes I felt I would go out of my mind with excitement and eager impatience, come-on-c’mon-c’mon-my-email.

I would have an email from ‘the rec.arts.poetry guy’on a daily basis. I honestly don’t remember the substance of our conversations but feel like they were intellectually reverent and romantically inclined, while feeling fairly certain they were non-sexual. I recalled feeling like 30 was exceedingly old, like at that age [14 years] ’30’ was indistinguishable from ‘Dad’s age’ [probably ~45 at that time] and ‘steeling myself’ for the possibility that the rec.arts.poetry guy with whom I was having a romantic correspondence might have gray hair. Like possibly even completely gray.

I was proud of myself for ignoring the traditional boundaries of age. I was proud of my lack of superficiality, since I was also conscious that since this person was ‘old’ they might also be fat or even distinctly unhandsome, things difficult for my adolescent mind to permit. I was determined to be noble because I was ‘falling in love’ or at the very least had a ‘real’ crush. I still hoped for more messages from the University of Alberta college student because he seemed way cooler and was closer to my age and was probably better looking because he had the same name as a Pearl Jam song and a college RADIO SHOW, but I was going to ‘do the right thing.’

I printed out the emails from the rec.arts.poetry guy and showed them to my friends at school. They seemed mostly disinterested, slightly ‘weirded’ but were patient/tolerant, like it was one of many weird things I did and they were accustomed to me being weird.

Then one day the rec.arts.poetry guy and I ‘got in a fight’ about something, I remember him becoming angry or scolding me for something I absolutely cannot recall, and him indicating that he felt I was ‘being immature’ and I wrote back something to the effect of ‘of course I’m being immature, I’m only fucking 14’, a fact I figured he must be aware of but was nobly overlooking the same way I was nobly overlooking his age and likely status as a gray-haired fat person.

I remember more of his email response to the revelation of my age than I do of the entire rest of the correspondence. He wrote ‘whoa’ or maybe ‘whoa, whoa,’ the way one does to slow a horse or something that has gone too quickly. He said he ‘had no idea’ regarding my age, said he had been under the impression I was ‘at least in college.’

He distinctly wrote ‘I meant no disrespect’ or ‘I never meant to disrespect you,’ I’m not sure which, which was perplexing to me to an extreme degree since I did not understand how corresponding sweetly with compliments and affection could be ‘disrespectful.’ He wrote ‘me and my middle-aged ass.’

I was more upset and confused by the unsolicited ‘apology’ for our entire correspondence than I was by whatever ‘fight’ he had been in that had made me mad enough to reveal my status as a 14 year-old. To my mind there was nothing incorrect about talking to a 14 year-old; in fact I was even somewhat affronted that he would hold my age against me, since I had not held his against him, and I think I wrote back something to the effect of ‘that’s okay, now you know, it’s okay,’ assuming that now that we both understood that some kind of life experience gap had caused whatever argument we had been having, we could go back to writing nice emails.

He never replied. I let some small amount of time pass and wrote another email, probably confrontationally demanding to know why me being 14 would elicit a total cessation in the ‘relationship’ on which I had come to depend, and then after again receiving no reply I probably wrote another email expressing distress at being ‘abandoned’ and apologizing for the initial argument/explicating that I never intended to be misleading regarding my age, probably explaining that I was ‘ahead’ and thus still a suitable girlfriend or that maybe we could talk when I was older and I would ‘wait’, maybe.

I wrote various things that I felt at the time should have dismissed or resolved the conflict. But although I was expecting that eventually I would hear from ‘the rec.arts.poetry guy’ again, I never did. I don’t recall feeling like ‘crushed’ or anything, just vaguely confused/resentful and probably a little embarrassed, as if I had been caught playing dress-up in my mother’s closet [I never ‘played dress-up in my mother’s closet’ but I might feel like that if I were ‘caught’ at it].

I rarely saw him on ‘rec.arts.poetry’ thereafter either, although I think on one occasion like a year following our incident I searched his name on the newsgroup and found one extremely bad poem he had posted on the newsgroup [even at age 14 I knew it was an ‘extremely bad poem.’]

It was somewhat romantic in a playful fashion, indicating ways he would like to express affection to someone, and contained the word ‘whiskers’ [in a tickling context] and the phrase ‘hop all over your back.’ After spending  time mulling and finally ruling out the possibility that it might at all be about me, ‘Delilah,’ I figured he actually must have a new, grown-up girlfriend who did not mind a fat old bearded man ‘hopping all over her back.’  I felt relieved/resentful. I thought about his ‘middle-aged ass’ with distinct discomfort.

Recently I googled the proper first + last name of ‘the rec.arts.poetry guy.’ I found an author by his somewhat uncommon but not impossible name who has published some kind of ‘spiritual’ book in heavy, almost manic opposition to abortion with an emphasis on ‘taking responsibility for the sexual act.’ He has a wife and several children. It might not be the same person. The biography picture of the author with the same name as ‘the rec.arts.poetry guy’ looked a little older than he would be. He has entirely gray hair, is overweight and has a beard. A gray beard. ‘Whiskers.’

I googled the first + last name of the University of Alberta student also. It turns out someone very likely to be him became a magazine writer like me and now lives in New York like me. One of the articles he wrote recently was even related to video games, like the articles I write. Feel weird about contacting him. ‘Hi, I had a crush on you on Usenet when I was 14.’ TC mark

More From Thought Catalog

  • Ujn Hunter

    It's hard to imagine that kids now will never have that same sense of the “internet” as we had growing up… just like they'll never know what it feels like to pop a tape into a VHS player. Weird.

  • http://www.facebook.com/TomSmizzle Tom Smith

    I grew up post-usenet, but my sister grew up post-dialup, and I find that really strange. People should know what it was like, waiting hours to listen to a song, or days to watch a video. Going on yahoo and searching “free cool mp3 downloads” because you knew nothing about music. Kids today don't know they're born.

  • Sophie

    Well, kids my brother's age will never have to watch a show at it's scheduled time, or watch a VHS, or go to a movie rental store, or have a phone without internet, like I used to. (I'm 13). Is that really a bad thing though?

  • Cheesewish

    you suck

    • http://twitter.com/leighalexander leighalexander

      write better or sign my checks

      • http://kumquatparadise.tumblr.com aaron nicholas

        you're one of my favorite writers on tc, leigh

      • http://kumquatparadise.tumblr.com aaron nicholas

        (+) + (-) = o
        dunno if the brain works like math, maybe

      • http://twitter.com/leighalexander leighalexander

        sweet, thanks a lot

  • Jenn

    You should write him!

    • http://twitter.com/charlesmj thom

      Yeah, write him then post any further interaction. Would be interesting to see what he thought about it all. Good article anyway

      • http://twitter.com/leighalexander leighalexander

        the person i found who might be him… if it IS him, i feel too scared of his current hyperconservative personal brand to want to really associate with him, really

      • http://twitter.com/charlesmj thom

        ah, i was talking about the University of Alberta student. but yes, i see why you wouldn't necessarily want to contact the older man

      • nat

        also strongly agree that you should contact the Alberta guy. He could be your soulmate! I would love to read more about it, feel invested in this story already. 

  • LDN

    please post up what the alberta guy says :)

    this reminded me of 2 guys i used to talk to: 1 when i was 11 and he was 18. weird.
    1 was the same age as me, knew everything about me and i had never seen even a photo. weirder.

  • Nikki

    I don't understand the frequent use of single quote marks around seemingly arbitrarily selected words. It takes me out of the narrative.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_4JWBRKXUDVJIK3KHNQR75AYQJ4 CronoDAS

    Oh, wow, that brings back memories of when I was 14 and lived on alt.games.final-fantasy… I miss the old USENET, back before spammers and such killed it…

  • http://heheheheheheheeheheheehehe.com/ tao

    i liked reading this, seems informative and focused on things i feel i haven't read much about before

    seemed 'engrossing' also, i feel

    • http://twitter.com/leighalexander leighalexander

      thank you tao, sweet

  • http://twitter.com/JosephErnest Joseph Ernest Harper

    One of the best TC articles in a while eh. Thanx Leigh.

  • Esra

    Great read. Had me nodding and smiling in agreement throughout. The days when chatrooms inspired rom coms, not headlines.

    Thanks for posting. I've only just discovered TC and I'm loving the posts.

  • http://twitter.com/triplescience Lolly

    This is so great, I used to go on 'placebo chat' (cringe) when I was 14 and used to text/phone/email nearly everyone I spoke to. I once met one guy who lived about 30 miles away; he came to my hometown and I think was 19/20 to my age 13/14. My mum didn't seem concerned that I was going off to meet a stranger although now I think she must've followed me or been at our meeting point (the National Media Museum) like hiding around the corner. He was such a great guy and we were genuine friends for years. I just never saw anything wrong or weird about meeting up with people from the internet that were older than me. I dunno. It's weird to think that teens now will probably never have that “meeting a complete stranger on the internet” thing like we had….

  • http://www.otakumotion.com lindstor

    I started reading this with the intention of stopping after a few lines. I suddenly found myself at the end of the story a few minutes later realizing I was completely enthralled. I would read your book when you write it.

  • JD

    Very enjoyable writeup. There is certainly something very nostalgic about the early days (for me it was mid 90s) of the internet, back when there was a distinction between your average person and an internet user. The feeling you describe waiting for the modem to dial up sure took me back!

  • Aspire_Inspire

    Ohhhh dial-up.. You will not be missed. Think of all the kids who will be born in the age of high-speed. Patience will not be a quality for these young'uns unfortunately, at least not for internets pages. Very interesting read. The 30 year old probably thought that exchanging personal emails with a 14 year old would be socially frowned upon, and then went through a period of shame and self-doubt.
    Your college radio crush sounds like he made a better impression, even though he took longer to respond… OR he's your eternal soulmate.

  • MP80909

    I used to help out on the MySpace General Help forum years ago. I was probably 15 and the rest of the helpers were between ages 25-60 (yeah, I know). There were some “HaX0r Kiddies” that would flood the forum with spam or try to impersonate the helpers, but never revealed themselves. We had suspicions of who the “kiddies” were, but never actually confronted them. A lot of the kids bragged about how many girlfriends they had, while the older adults would respond with quips like, “You're on a MySpace forum–you're either lying or a rapist.” When I started to make more friends in high school (freshman year was rough) I left MySpace behind. In addition to my friends getting cool “new” Facebook profiles, the forum deteriorated into name-calling, trolling, and legit idiots asking questions about adding glittery .gifs and falling text to their page. A few days ago I went back to the General Help forum and saw it was largely the same as I left it ~six years ago…sans the “kiddies.”

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