I used to teach him Spanish. At least, I hoped that’s what I was doing, because there’s not much else a 10-year-old girl can teach a 14-year-old boy.
Jarod didn’t know I was ten; nor did the rest of my internet friends at the time. We first met in the window of ’97 in a chat room by way of AOL’s Kids Only channel. The room was game-themed and could only hold about thirty kids — arriving late meant you sacrificed socializing for the night or you incessantly refreshed the page until some unlucky chatter’s modem gave way and afforded you a coveted spot in the Gameroom.
It came to be so that a few of us regulars took a liking to each other. When AOL made it possible, we began to take our chats outside of the moderated Gameroom and into private rooms, where only the most elite of us gamers could converse, create recreational macros, and drop .wavs until our parents needed to use the phone. It was then that I began to lie about my age, tacking three years onto the paltry ten I had endured so far. This made me among the oldest in the group, and subsequently, one of the most powerful. I did not want for friends offline, but the power of age was alien to me, foie gras foreign. If I had known this lie would follow me into my formative years and force me to predict and alter my so-called future — I once lied about getting left back senior year of high school because at 14, I couldn’t fathom what attending college would be like — I don’t know that I would have reconsidered. In its context, my lie didn’t harm anyone and it was also eventually exposed by the advent of Facebook (where I remain friends with most of my Gameroom-era friends). Anyway, this isn’t a story about my lies; it’s a story about someone else’s.
I remember watching Catfish in theaters the day it opened. For the uninitiated, Catfish is a documentary that follows photographer Nev Schulman on his journey to meet Megan, the girl he’s been communicating with online and by phone for an amount of time I can’t recall. After catching Megan in a pretty telling lie, Nev sets out with his brother and friend to confront her and discover who she really is. The answer to that question is equal parts disturbing and sad. Moments before the reveal an unease filled my stomach, a stew of dread.
Those feelings of heavy are now recreated every Monday night, as Nev has teamed up with MTV to help hopeless romantics find and meet their own personal Megans. While these Megans are doting, caring, and sexually explicit in a virtual space, they’ve red flagged their way into suspicious territory: some claim to not have cell phones, some agree to meet up but continuously back out, some say they have too much schoolwork, not enough money.
During the discovery process on the show (aptly titled Catfish: The TV Show), one can’t help but want to scream at the people who have enlisted Nev to dig up dirt on their online love interests. Do you really think Miss Teen Universe is interested in you? He only has ten Facebook friends? She doesn’t have a phone? But as obvious as it seems, we are all capable of faith when we can’t fathom other alternatives. Our hearts want so badly to believe sometimes that logic becomes an afterthought, a stale morning breath. Only cold hard facts can change our minds, and even then we’re not wont to chase after fact. We prefer to chase fantasy.
Jarod was fantasy. His entry into our private chats was a crimson flag flapping and yet no one objected, least of all me. He was a friend who was temporarily living with Jesse — the boy next door of our group. And Jesse, well he’d been looped in by Becca — an original Gameroom girl who slowly disappeared from chat soon after Jesse rose to popularity. Jesse would also fade away after a year or so, which left us with Jarod. Of course, this was in vogue back then — we were all experimenting with new screen names, new identities, new lives.
Most people didn’t like Jarod initially. Where Jesse was soft, flirtatious, and trustworthy; Jarod was grey and morbid. Mean even, at times. He would circle around our insecurities, blood in water and Jarod, the shark. Despite this, I had a soft spot for him that grew a little larger each day like a slow-spreading cancer. We began to IM outside of chat. I started to teach him Spanish, or what little I knew so far. In return, Jarod taught me depression. He typed in lowercase letters and reported vague, unwell feelings daily, ones that implied failings of both a mental and physical nature. “Bendito,” I would say, “you are the saddest person I’ve ever known.”
Eventually this relationship took precedence over all others; I would rush home from junior high where he’d be waiting online, always waiting. It was a rare occasion that Jarod was not online when I arrive home from school, something I never questioned. I guess I was one of those people you’d see on Catfish, the ones who want so desperately to believe in a lie.
One of my favorite movies is You’ve Got Mail. It reminds me of a grey area in my lifetime wherein one could have two separate identities, online and off, and no one thought it strange or deceptive. Pictures were not the currency they are now, because scanners were still a luxury and digital cameras were unheard of (or else, insanely unaffordable). These were romantic times, the rebirth of love letters in e-form. I love You’ve Got Mail because it’s your best-case scenario. “I wanted it to be you, so badly,” Meg Ryan says when she finally discovers the man she fell for virtually and physically is one and the same.
We don’t live in a You’ve Got Mail world, though. We live in a Catfish world, where photos are so plentiful that you don’t even have to use your own to attract a stranger and where no one is uttering “I wanted it to be you” so much as staring blank-faced into a video camera while their wildest fantasies smolder and the world watches on.
Over the years, the rest of the group came to accept Jarod as I had. Ashley became his “sister.” He fawned over Amy, the youngest, because of how good-hearted and intelligent she was for her age (she joined the group at eight). And Jen, he called Alanis Morissette — which she thought to be a grave insult, though he assured her it was the highest compliment he could pay anyone. I was jealous, but I was still his bendita and so I held on to that endearment like a leash, a thing that could get away if I didn’t hold it tight enough.
After the turn of the millennium, scanners became more prominent among our group and we began trading photos. I desperately wanted to see Jarod, but when he obliged all I could make out was a brown head of hair, a slim body, a sad longness to him. The image was all grain and noise, an idea of a photograph. And still, it was enough to satiate me, to make him exist.
Our group also began to take our conversations offline. We’d have conference calls with up to five people on the phone. On one particularly memorable call, Mike came out to us — the first out gay person I’d met. He sent me Disney ears with my name on them when he visited Florida. Caitlin sent me postcards from her summer away from the internet, and Amy burned me mix CDs before my computer had the functionality to do so. We were all becoming a little more real to each other; still I never learned Jarod’s last name.
In a very heartbreaking scene toward the end of Catfish, Nev sits on a porch with the husband of the woman who called herself Megan. He explains that when codfish used to be shipped from North America to Asia, the fish would arrive in piles of flesh, victim to their own inactivity during their travels. Fishermen then introduced catfish into the tanks, which served to nip at the codfish, keeping them alive and active during the trip. With a tired smile, he tells Nev that some people are born to be catfish, put here to keep things interesting for the rest of us.
Jarod’s symptoms began to worsen, and sometimes he would tell me he was dying. He’d disappear for a week or two and then resurrect, explaining away his absence with hospital visits or a hunger for something better. I imagined him frail and alone, his Gaussian-blurred face white and wanting.
The group was keeping diaries during those years on the now defunct MyOpenDiary.com. I was 14 and had just begun high school, and I began to spend my time online chatting with offline acquaintances — neglecting my diary, my Gameroom friends, and the façade that I was now a freshman in college. Most of the group persisted with the diaries, though, Jarod included. His posts were at once angry and poetic, speaking often of hospital visits, of discomfort, of hopelessness. I once checked in to find that he had written something of a goodbye letter, which implied that he would die soon. He said goodbye to several people — some alleged offline friends, some he’d met through the diary website, and then us. My goodbye was second to last, Tell bendita I love her, since she doesn’t read here anymore. I printed it out and cried. It still sits in an accordion folder in my closet, the ink faded from black to a light purple.
Jarod didn’t die just then, in fact he stuck around for a year or so, and we resuscitated our friendship before he disappeared completely. He said, “i want to buy a school bus and follow the counting crows when they go on tour and you should come with me.” I liked the idea but I was becoming like the audience at home, all jaded and knowing. It was the last time we talked. I created a special section on my buddy list for his various screennames. Each name had a sound alert, a cow mooing because vaca was his favorite Spanish word for reasons I don’t understand or can’t explain. Suffice to say that my time online became much quieter once he was gone, a church after mass.
I’m happy for the people Nev helps on Catfish even if the closure is painful, because now they can spot their catfish in a crowd. As for me? I’ll never stop wondering if mine is still swimming.