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I Fell In Love Online--But Here's What Happened When We Met In Person

In the romantic transition from online chats to real-life meetings, the reality inevitably turns out more than you planned on and less than you had hoped for.
 
 
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I have some experience in the area of love in the digital age. 

I met a man online who lived on the other side of the country. We were technologically inseparable for two months before I flew out to spend a week exclusively in his company.  In some respects, the week contained everything I imagined the relationship would be… but there’s also the reality of how meeting him actually turned out.

 

It wasn’t love at first Tweet, but the attraction our conversations and Google searching generated caught me off guard.  I didn’t think it would go any further than an unrequited crush.  I was wrong.  Very wrong.

Here’s a word you’ll never read about in the more restrained online love stories – masturbation.  I mean, how else are two people – separated by thousands of miles but who nevertheless share immeasurable bursts of affection and passion – supposed to connect with each other?  I’ll be honest.  Our first magical phone call?  It was pretty awkward.  Lots of pauses and throat-clearing.  After about twenty minutes, he excused himself for dinner plans.  Another one bites the dust, I figured.   

But he surprised us both by calling me back later that night at two a.m. my time, initiating a pleasantly amiable conversation that morphed into phone sex which lasted until nearly five in the morning.  Later that day, I woke up to a text message from him.  “I love the sounds you make,” he wrote, and he wasn’t talking about my Martha Generic impersonation.  

Like so many lusty online romances, masturbation was the glue that held our long-distance flirtatious bond together.  I was supposed to be taking the summer off from sex and dating… yeah, that plan lasted all of five days before we met.  At first, I rationalized my guilt away: It’s only phone sex!  It’s only masturbating!  But it was undeniably the most intimate contact I was allowing myself to share with another person during this self-induced bout of celibacy.  And slowly, over weeks, he was learning more from me than just dirty talk.  

We talked all of the time, it seemed, through every medium we could get our hands on: instant messages, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, cell phone calls, work phone calls.  I told him my secrets, my worries, the mean things people said to me at work (“There’s a supermodel buried in there somewhere!”) and the kind words of encouragement from others that I refused to let sink into my damaged psyche.  He told me things, too: his insecurities, his anxieties, stories about his failed marriage and his ex-girlfriends and the friends he suspected didn’t really have his best interests at heart (he was right about them).  We let each other in and so much of everything inside us came gushing out.

I’ve heard sex does that to people when they’re in love. 

We didn’t give our relationship – such that it was – any labels.  He was on another coast, entangled in a messy open relationship and a previous arrangement with another woman who planned to visit him for a Sexy Timesweek.  But he and I both knew that we were becoming more than friends.  We even had a song – Billie Holiday’s “Easy to Love.”  It didn’t matter that we were nowhere near ready to use the loaded L-word.  Later in August, I spent the majority of a free Death Cab for Cutie concert sending him text messages coded with meaning.  I told him the song was and wasn’t about us, save a few careful lines.

You’ve got to spend some time, love

You’ve got to spend some time with me


“We’ll be lovers,” he wrote.  “Lovers at last.”  

 With a mere six words, he nailed my intentions to the floor.  I tested the waters and called him my Online Boyfriend.  

 "Boyfriend,” he wrote back.  “I like that.”  Writing the words didn’t make him my boyfriend, but it did mean we were [maybe] onto Something Big.

Even though I had a few hang-ups about his polyamory, I just knew that I had to meet him in-person.  None of what we were building online and over the phone could move forward if we didn’t meet face-to-face and spend real time together, not hours interrupted by meals and work and the minutiae of life in between our online missives to one another.  Being in a relationship requires significant corporeal input – time measured in long touches, kisses, staring at each other across the table, sharing spontaneous ideas while holding hands.   I couldn’t even think about saying “I love you” if I wasn’t right next to him.

We picked a week that I would fly out to visit him in his city, but I waited until the end of one month of talking to him so that I could be “sure” we weren’t sick of each other already.  I didn’t know then that you can never be “sure.”  I remember that I was trembling as I entered my credit card number into online ticketing.  

“Last chance to back out,” I wrote.  

He didn’t hesitate to reply, “Go ahead and buy it.”  

I made a rule that we wouldn’t sleep together unless we were both single by the time I went to meet him.  It turned out to be a non-issue.  As fate would have it, things fizzled in his open relationship and he was feeling pumped up from the self-esteem boost that comes in being the one to end a relationship, The Dumper as opposed to The Dumped.  He wrote a song about the break-up a few days before my flight.  “I'll treat someone else right,” he sang. “And she'll be monogamous.”  

I wore rosewater perfume (his favorite scent) on a cross-country flight with a connection in Denver, spritzing myself in various airport bathrooms with a travel-sized bottle in order to keep myself calm.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t gone on long trips before.  I had flown solo to Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine, to Madrid and Paris and Amsterdam, Berlin and Dublin.  But there was never any potential lover waiting for me on the other side of those flights.  After landing, my carry-on suitcase seemed to find every crack in the sidewalk as I raced to find him.  There was no need to run.  He was already waiting for me in Baggage Claim, a bouquet of purple flowers in his outstretched hands.

There had been some discussion beforehand about the particulars of our first kiss.  He wanted to commence making-out immediately upon meeting me, with little regard for the people watching us.  My vision for that moment was somewhat different.  I wanted a long walk outdoors, both of us away from prying eyes, time to build up some tension (never mind that we had months of sexual tension between us by this point).  As predicted, I got my way: we merely hugged with enthusiasm, kissed each other’s cheeks, and held hands at the airport, his left arm wrapped around my shoulder when we sat next to each other on the train.

The ride back to his one-bedroom apartment didn’t prepare me for what I found inside.  The two rooms and bathroom appeared to be much smaller than what I had seen through his laptop camera.  His bed was a mattress on the floor with a box spring underneath.  The sheets were dingy and rumpled.  I set my bag on the bed and sat beside it.

My would-be lover appeared unexpectedly glum as he plopped down on the mattress next to me.  “I really want to kiss you right now,” he mumbled, unable to look into my eyes.  “But I guess I’ll wait until we get down to the water, like you wanted.”

This is the kind of moment you can’t script online.  I could have easily avoided his shy gaze and waited for the walk to the waterfront where we had decided our first kiss would take place.  I could have stuck to the plans in my head about what the perfect first kiss with this particular man would look like.  But I didn’t.  I asked him to put down the glass of water in his hands.  He set it on the sink above us.  I climbed into his lap, my legs straddling his hips before wrapping around his waist.  I leaned down until we were kissing, and in that moment it was as if I had kissed him hundreds of times before, with boldness and heat, softness and heart-wrenching sweetness.  He moaned beneath me and pulled me close to him.  We rolled around on his unmade mattress, catching our breath before leaning in to kiss again.  This was (almost) better than sex.  It was certainly better than my imaginary, water-logged first-kiss fantasy.

That’s the thing about fantasies – for most of us who make the transition from online chats to real-life meetings, the reality inevitably turns out to be complicated: simultaneously more than you planned on and less than you had hoped for.  

Sex was one of those complicated realities.  We had much to learn about each other’s bodies, to be sure, but his tiny, stale-scented apartment wasn’t exactly the romantic environment I had hoped to consummate our relationship in – and it didn’t help that he kept asking me if I was having an orgasm.  I felt rushed and overwhelmed by his unrelenting race to the Finish Line.  That first night, we didn’t go all the way; we rolled over in frustration and passed out, only to face each other the next morning with firm determination to complete what we had started (relatively successful intercourse).  

We weren’t as amorous as I had expected – our infrequent bouts of sex seemed to punctuate moments of boredom rather than passion.  Still, he was tender and gentle as he introduced me to his friends and kissed me on sidewalks, singing U2’s “With or Without You” at a karaoke recital and reading next to me in cafés.  The following afternoon, we sweated together in an unexpected heat wave, only for him to roll off of me and ask, “Allison, do you think you could ever love me?”

 

I wish I had stopped to examine his wording.  He wasn’t making a confession of love – he was asking me to put my feelings on the line, testing the waters before he leapt.  This wasn’t like me calling him my Online Boyfriend.  This was supposed to be a big moment – and it is, for most couples.  Love should be the most intimate of risks, not a carefully-worded veil of ambiguity.  Still, I didn’t see it that way at the time.

“I think I already do,” I said.  We were both crying.  

“Allison, I love you,” he said.  Hearing him say my name sounded so much better in real life than over the phone.  “I’ve loved you since before we even met.”  He pulled me on top of him and slipped inside me again.  Everything between us felt so right.

“I love you,” I whispered over and over into his ears, the nape of his bearded neck, his chest, his arms, practically every inch of exposed skin.  “I love you so much.”

And I did love him.  But even so, I would lie awake at night next to him on that overturned mattress and silently think, This isn’t going to work.  The same thought flooded me as I stood making pumpkin-oat pancakes and crisp bacon in his kitchen while he uploaded pictures from the day before onto Facebook and tagged our smiling faces.  I thought about how it wouldn’t work while we walked to a movie theater and he complained about the sun, of all things, as if there can ever be too much sunshine on a day off from work with your lover in tow.  It came over me as we drove to a petrified forest and the Pacific Ocean.  It came to me when he stood on the rocks next to me and didn’t reach out to hold me in the freezing wind.  

He said as much in that moment on the rocks.  “I don’t know what I could add to your life,” he told me.  Why didn’t I believe him?  Why didn’t we both heave sighs of relief that the truth that lives at the core was finally out in the open?  I was a coward who didn’t want to let go of the love that had finally found me, even if that love was ill-fitting and wearing me down with impossibility.  

“My life is less lonely with you in it,” I said.  That much was true.  I got a rush every time I opened a text message with his name and number, every time he sent me an email or a Tweet or posted to my Facebook wall.  I’m almost positive he felt the same way about me.  But it didn’t change the facts: we weren’t compatible in day-to-day living, we strained to make conversation after a few days together, and our physical connection wasn’t the all-consuming love affair that either of us had envisioned.   

Still, he kept telling me how happy he was to be with me and he said that I was welcome to stay with him any time.  We had made our relationship Facebook-official days before and now we talked about living together in his city the following year.  How could I tell him that my gut was saying no?

Despite days of tension and my internal uncertainty, that day we found an abandoned state beach park and I pulled him to me, demanding that we make love right there.  We did.  It was everything I had fantasized: a man I loved on a secluded and empty oceanfront, taking me on the adventure of a lifetime.  After we cleaned up, I drove his car for the first time on unfamiliar highways to his friend’s house three hours away as he slept in the passenger seat beside me.  As I drove, I sang along softly to Alanis Morissette on his iPod: “You’ve already won me over in spite of me.  Don’t be alarmed if I fall head over feet.”  We got out of the car, but he stopped the both of us in our tracks on our way to catch the bus that would take us back to his apartment.

“We’re a team,” he told me, by now fully rested and grinning.  “I love you.  There’s nothing we can’t do together.”

Inevitably, our week together came to a close.  I had tears in my eyes on my way to the airport and not just because I was sad to leave him – in a drunken fit of clarity the night before, I had pushed him away as he reached for me in bed and tried to break up with him, but then I chickened out at the moment of truth.  I felt guilty for denying him sex; it was potentially months before we’d see each other again and he was my boyfriend, my Real Life Boyfriend, the man I loved.  But it didn’t change the way I felt inside – a growing awareness that he wasn’t the right guy for me.

He must have felt it, too, even though he didn’t share it with me.  When I got back to work and my daily routine, he seemed clingier towards me, almost desperate to get my attention, no matter what time of day or night.  The three-hour time difference and my lack of sleep didn’t help matters.  I grew increasingly irritated with his endless barrage of complaints about his boring day-job, his lack of a social life, his jealousy over the success of other artists in his field.  I felt like nothing I did satisfied his need for comfort and connection.  His constant stream of talking wasn’t even especially intimate; every word he uttered and typed rubbed me raw with his need.

I’d die for you, I remember thinking.  But I won’t live for you.

He didn’t need me to die for him.  He needed for me to be honest with him.  But I pushed him away instead.  As the weeks passed, I picked fights that were nonsensical at best and mean-spirited jabs at worst.  The terrible and almost unbelievable part of the whole thing was, I still loved him and desperately wanted for things to work out between us.  

I let him do the breaking up; I rationalized again, this time telling myself that I couldn’t be another woman who hurt him.  What a cop-out.  He broke my heart by telling me that he had been trying to convince himself that he was in love with me.  But he was crying so hard that I didn’t really believe him.  He insisted that it wasn’t all pretend, but I was furious with the way he had pulled the rug out from under me.  Why does love have to end in take-backs?  Why couldn’t he have said, “I love you, but my feelings changed” instead of telling me that none of it was real?

For weeks, I woke up to fresh tears.  I cried in the shower and on the ride to work.  I cried while listening to his songs on my iPod.  I cried while reading his Twitter feed, even though I had deleted both him and his circle of friends from my social network.  I took his innocuous 140-character musings as potential signs – was the Garth Brooks video from a broken-hearted lover that he favorited on YouTube an obscure but deliberate shout-out?  It wasn’t.  Within a few days of our breakup, he had a new love interest that soon morphed into the role of girlfriend, someone who lived in his state and went to the movies with him and joked with him and seemed to care about him as much as I ever had.  

I tried to get over him without much success.  A month after the break-up, I slept with a friend after a few drinks and an invitation to watch Netflix movies in my bedroom.  “Make me forget,” I told him as we kissed.  I pictured my ex’s hands and mouth on me.  It wasn’t until I was actually having sex with my friend that I could focus on the guy I was with, the moment where he and I joined together, not a longing fantasy of my ex-boyfriend.

It took time to get over him.  It took a deliberate sabbatical of silence and a series of Google Chats that still leave me baffled at the random, aloof cruelty he could channel in those conversations.  He admitted that at one time, he was in love with me.  After months of torturing myself over whether his feelings for me were ever real, I felt validated and relieved by his confession.  Still, there are a few key times in our relationship we both remember differently.  I guess we all have our own versions of the same story.  

I wonder what it would have been like if the story with my ex-boyfriend had ended at the two of us exchanging a few Tweets and flirtatious instant messages. Maybe I would have gone to the city he lives in for different reasons.  Maybe we would never have met.  But I’m glad I took the leap.  I went across the country in search of love, the ultimate unknown.  I might not have found what I was looking for with him.  Hell, I might not even be anyone’s girlfriend right now.  But man.  What a story.

Allison McCarthy is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications such as Bitch, Ms. (blog), Girlistic, GOOD, Global Comment, Hoax, ColorsNW, and The Baltimore Review, as well as in the anthologies Robot Hearts: Twisted and True Tales of Seeking Love in the Digital Age (Pinchback Press, 2010) and Dear Sister: Letters to Survivors of Sexual Violence (forthcoming). She is currently a graduate student in the Master of Professional Writing program at Chatham University and lives in Maryland.
 
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