You Were There
You Were There
A Story by Shay Siegel
I met you online. Or maybe you met me. I can’t remember how it happened, but it happened and I remember. We didn't meet on line at Starbucks, antsy for espresso and the new bagel bite flavors. And we didn't meet on line at the pet store where we bonded over our cats—yours striped and tall, mine black and fluffy. And it wasn't on line at the airport, crossing paths to a mutual destination after a long night of delays. It was the Internet—I met you, as much as you can meet someone who isn’t there at all. You were real and imagined, and both at once. Talking to you was everything and nothing—but more.
I remember how you consumed every inch of me, only touching me through your keyboard, though I felt it nonetheless. How you crawled inside my brain, lit a scented candle, and spread warmth and comfort through your absence. I stayed up so late that one day bled into the next. Typing through the stream of sunlight breaking past the sky, ripping through clouds. Until my eyes blazed red, and I saw double on the screen. Never wanting to let the real world in and take you from me.
I don't remember the conversations, but I recall the constant, eye-lifted smile on my face as it looked back at me through my screen’s reflection. I retain scouring my thoughts with angst and a beating heart. Deleting words only to type them again, deleting whole sentences. I remember when I had to pee badly, and holding it in, afraid to miss your reply, afraid you’d say you had to go and I wouldn't be there to type TTYL. I reminisce shivering in my frosty house, bumps sprouting on my adolescent arms, sprinting into my room for a sweatshirt and slippers, only to see you hadn’t yet responded when I was back at the computer. I remember spending every second with you, never looking you in the eye. I liked not looking you in the eye.
I knew you were real—at least that you were who you said you were, even though you never said it. I knew people who knew you, a string of mutual friends from a different town and different school that led me to you. Joining us in a group chat one night full of our real life people, people we didn't know solely as screen names. We clung to that, starting our own private chat. A private world that we’d continue for years. Like it was pointless and important, like it didn't matter if we spoke and mattered that we did.
There was no online danger with you, no chance of pedophiles, no chance of abduction and murder. There was no chance of embarrassment and attachment. No chance that whatever developed would be real. You weren’t a stranger, except that you were. You weren’t anyone important, except that you were. You weren’t mine, except that you were. I knew you by your screen name. Not by what the rest of the world called you. No need for it, no need to say it to friends or family. No need to talk about you like you were real.
You were a name that I would get excited to see lit up on my buddy list. My one reason for logging on. I’d look at the clock if you weren’t there, and wait five minutes for you, before logging off. My muscles pulled at my cheeks in a wide smile if you suddenly appeared before my deadline, but I’d count to sixty Mississippis before sending you an I-M, straining my cheeks harder if you sent me one first. I never wanted you to think me desperate, but I desperately wanted as much of you as I could have—without having all of you.
You knew me through pink verdana fonts, and a lame, trying too hard profile description. Through the letters QT in my screen name—used by every teenage girl—typical and young and wanting your infatuation. You knew me through my thumbnail photo and what I told you. You knew me through what you thought of me. If you thought of me. But, you must’ve known me most by not inhabiting your real life. By not bringing me around your real world friends or to high school parties. By not taking me to the movies where we’d share greasy popcorn and cherry Coke. By not running your fingers through my flat-ironed hair or walking down the street with me, talking out loud. By me not being there at all, even though I always was.
My world was split in half with you. You could only be there when I wasn't living my real life. But, you were the realest part of my life. You brought out the strongest emotions, feelings, dreams—you brought out everything I wanted, though I only wanted it when I wasn't doing something else. When I wasn't in school, or practicing the guitar. When I wasn't playing with my cat or eating Asian takeout and watching teen dramas on TV. When I wasn't hanging out with other friends at those loud parties or popcorn-scented movie theaters. When I wasn't with you, I was in a different universe. One separate from you and my desktop. One separate from lust and excitement. From the magic of everything we had.
It must have been every day that I talked to you. It lasted ten years. We talked as summer began to cool down and the leaves changed from evergreen to bright hues of yellow and red. We talked until they fell off the trees altogether and snow graced the dead branches. We talked until tulips bloomed, and painful, frostbitten weather left us like it had never been there at all. We talked and we talked, no matter day or dusk, seasons beginning or ending, hail or blistering sun—you were there.
You were there through my high school graduation, college acceptance. You were there through your drug problem and your release from rehab. You were there through ended friendships and new ones begun. You were there through first kisses and virginities lost—never daring to speak of it with each other because it happened in that other world that you couldn't possibly be part of. But, you were there. You were there as I grew up. You were there as I began to learn who I was. You were there and yet, you hardly were.
Years and years never seeing your face in front of mine. Never hearing your voice dance around my ears. Never grazing your flesh beneath my fingertips. Never even knowing what you smelled like.
Every song on the radio reminded me of you. Characters on TV said things you would say. When I picked out my outfits, I imagined robbing your breath, if you were ever to see me. If you’d fixate on my purple nail polish and the French braids in my hair.
I paired my first name with your last, as I wrote it over and over in my notebook until I was dizzy with red hearts and the idea of you. The idea of holding your hand. The idea of laughing at old sitcoms with my head nestled into your shoulder. The idea that you lay awake at night picturing me and replaying our conversations in your head, right until I entered your dreams and took over every part of you. The idea that what we had was real.
I applied mascara and eyeliner, too dark for my face. I used mouthwash and spritzed perfume. I shaved my legs, anticipating your gentle touch. Never caring that there was no possibility. Never caring that you wouldn't notice the details, anyway and that I didn't have the nerve to let you close enough. I wanted to see you, smell you, feel you—but really, I didn't.
Sometimes I hated you. For not declaring that you wanted me and only me forever because I meant so much to you, because I was real and you needed me like water, you needed me so much that your ribs ached. I hated you for being so inconsiderate, for continuing to talk to me to the point of ridiculousness. All the while never wanting it to stop. Why did we both draw it out like it meant nothing and everything the same?
I don't remember when we starting using webcams. Or the first time I really saw you, your movements, in something other than photographs and the dots informing me that you were typing. The moment when your face formed into a smile just as you began to laugh, or when you opened your mouth and let words spill out through those lips that I had only ever seen be still. Those moments when you listened to my words, a fixed expression on your face, like I mattered. I wanted to inhale your laugh, the way the corners of your hazel eyes crinkled and the scrunch of your ski-slope nose—to know I was the one who put those emotions on your familiar face. I hated how cool you looked when you smoked cigarettes in front of your laptop because I liked that you smoked and I would’ve never liked it on a real life person. I wanted to smell the tobacco and taste the nicotine destroying your lungs. I wanted to be capable of destroying you—to matter so much.
We talked through the year you were sent to Afghanistan. I saw your barracks and your uniform. I saw you act as always, smoking and joking, like you weren’t in a war. Like killing people wasn't a daily possibility—and I never did ask if it was. I saw the dimples in your cheeks and the freckles on your nose as you looked at me and smiled. I wanted you to come home even if I knew I’d never see you. I liked knowing that you were near and I could keep you far. I didn't want you to actually be far because then the possibility of being with you was never—even though it already was. I wanted you safe. I wanted me safe so long as I didn't have you in front of me.
I missed you and I never had you to miss. How could I possibly miss you when you lived inside my computer screen? Dead when my laptop lay shut.
You came home and I still didn't see you. I can’t remember if we ever spoke of meeting or if it was understood that we wouldn't. We talked like we did meet though. We talked like we hung out everyday. And, I guess in some ways, we did.
It was like ten years of anticipating a first date that never came. Wings pulsated in my stomach every time I typed ‘hey’ to you. I checked my makeup even if you couldn't see me. I laughed alone in my room even if what you said wasn't funny. I never fought with you because there was no reason. I loved every single thing about you that I made up myself.
I pictured what it would be like to be intimate with you. Even after I lost my virginity on a clumsy, drunken night, I wondered how it would be with someone who mattered. Someone who knew and cared about all the boring details of my real world life. Someone who wanted to put them aside and be my real world life. I wanted to feel you on top of me. To have your tobacco flavored mouth press against mine. I wanted your breath to whisper against my throat and crush me with purpose. To run my fingers over the Army tattoo on your shoulder. I wanted you because you were you, and you were so cripplingly important, even if you weren’t. I wanted to know you better than anyone…maybe I already did.
We met once. It was set up on one of the many nights of drunken text messages declaring nonsense and love. I told myself I’d go through with it, to stop being scared, that I was ready to see you even if it took eight years. That this was normal.
I stood in front of your face that day. That face that I loved to watch change in front of me, though I didn't want it this close, this alive. Your muscles tensed beneath my grip as you moved into me for a tense hug. The swish of your T-shirt caressed my bare arms; your breath left your body and found my ears. All of you throbbed through me like blood. My heart continually struck my chest, begging for it to be over. I didn't realize that you were just a person—because you weren’t.
I couldn't think of anything smart or charming to say. Of course not, you were there and I didn't have the safety of my keyboard and my fantasies. I didn't have the safety of talking to you through a webcam, knowing you were far away, that you couldn't touch me, you couldn't break me. I wanted you to retreat to your computer and let me live in bliss. Which was exactly what we went back to doing after that day, like it never happened—a blip in time, a lapse in judgment.
I don't know why I talked to you for ten years online and acted like it was normal that we never met. I don't know why you did it either. I don't know what our relationship ever was, if it was anything. It felt like something and it still does. I learned you wrong. I learned you through my desktop, which turned into a laptop, which turned into a smart phone—the whole time you were there. I learned you and learned you, never asking myself to retain anything. Were you so insignificant? Were you so overwhelmingly important? Were you ever who I thought you were? Did I even think of who you were at all?
I liked pretending what we were. I didn't actually want it. What would be magical about telling the story of how you met online—not at Starbucks or the airport or the pet store—and didn't meet for years in real life? The magical part is that it isn’t real, that’s what magic is. An illusion. Slight of hand.
I still miss you. I still long to talk to you even though it’s been years since we last spoke. I can’t remember when we faded so far away that we were no longer us. It was gradual, there was no instance one day where all communication was gone forever, but now suddenly, it is. It’s sudden when I look back because you were there for so long. We didn't have a falling out. We didn't begin dating other people that weren’t okay with our confused, non-relationship. It was nothing like that. But, now it's nothing. I don't like that it’s nothing.
I wonder how your life is. I wonder if you quit smoking and left the Army. I wonder if you still skateboard and like to draw. I wonder if you relapsed on drugs. I wonder if you met a real girl, realer than me. I wonder if you feel so much older than we used to be. I wonder if you think of me. If you ever did. If you liked our made up world, too.