People I’ve Met From The Internet by Stephen Van Dyck
155 pages – Amazon
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Name: Kenneth George
User name: Eclipse80
Website: AOL chat room
Date: March 1998
Location: Albuquerque, NM
Summary of first meeting: Found him outside at school
Times met: Met in person at least five times
Kenneth had hair-sprayed, crispy, spiked hair, light brown skin, and a navy blue polo in his junior yearbook photo. He was a senior at my high school when I was a freshman. Over the phone he played his favorite song, “Lost in Love” by the Nasty Boy Klick, a Spanglish R&B track popular on hip hop stations across the Southwest. Kenneth told me “Fire It Up” by Busta Rhymes sampled the Knight Rider theme song. Kenneth couldn’t believe I had never heard of Knight Rider. Two months later my screen name was FireItUp6. This was during a period of using mostly Tori Amos-inspired titles for my gay screen names: Cruel1983, Spark926, Boy4Pele. This was a year before I got the poster of Tori nursing a piglet that my mother demanded I remove. For my straight friends I was Vow15 and later Vow16, a gothy song by Garbage, plus my age. My friend Jerry thought Shirley Manson was my type, and for a while that became my explanation. Standing defiantly still at the mic, Shirley Manson didn’t smile or make an innocently seductive face. Shirley Manson had electric blue eyeshadow and black circles around her eyes. I wanted black circles around my eyes. Shirley Manson told the stupid girl in the song she was a phony for trying to be liked. She told me I was a phony too—for keeping my gay screen names secret, for trying to live in two worlds at once.
Kenneth was Navajo. Kenneth’s parents never married, though they were a couple for at least as long as he had been alive. Did his parents celebrate anniversaries? Eat dinner together? Live together? Kenneth told me they did, in an apartment complex near the Costco on Jefferson. I wondered if Kenneth played the Nasty Boy Klick song to tell me he wanted to get lost in love with me. I didn’t know if this was a thing people did. All I knew was my middle school friend Shannon Cooke and I played songs back and forth over the phone, holding cordless receivers to our boomboxes to have a conversation. We once used most of an evening and Jagged Little Pill to communicate that she had a crush on me. Soon I had to buy a second Jagged Little Pill because my first was so scratched.
Kenneth and I exchanged multi-page locker notes. At the top of my stack of brown-paper-bag-wrapped textbooks, tiny folded packages appeared, and I opened them to find “Hey cutie =)” plus a full page of hard-to-read cursive in smeared pencil. My responses were full of questions because I missed whole paragraphs. In one note, Kenneth told me to find him in an outdoor patio area at our high school that I didn’t know was there. It was just through the doors past the school cafeteria, a short walk from where I ate lunch everyday with the Creative Writing Club girls on the cold, tile floor. We described our lunch spot as “behind the bear,” a taxidermied black bear named Oso who greeted students every morning at the school’s entrance. After I read Kenneth’s note, I went through the cafeteria doors and found metal picnic tables and a few scrawny trees enclosed by tall cinder block walls. Kenneth was there, joke-fighting with his friend Shawn who had a high-pitched voice with a Valley Girl rise. For the rest of the lunch hour, Kenneth ignored me. On the other side of the cinder block walls, a car once hit a skateboarding sophomore. The Creative Writing Club was in session when it happened. He landed fifty feet from where the car struck him and died. I only remember his last name: Cisneros.
The school was surrounded by cookie-cutter housing developments, and I marveled at their identical compact floor plans, each with different sets of people and furniture. The only places I could recognize were along the drive to school from my house, the streets I drove with my mother every school day. Once, she was crying but wouldn’t say why. She could barely speak. Every morning my mother woke me up by saying my name in the same slow voice she used when she was mad.
In 1997, free software CDs in the mail accumulated on the kitchen counter: America Online, Prodigy, CompuServe. At Sam Goody the cashier would let me take as many America Online CDs as I wanted. My first compact disc sighting: I was ten and with friends in a cul-de-sac where we spent many summer afternoons. Standing on our bikes in a circle, we described to each other, though we could see it for ourselves, the jagged shards reflecting green and violet. Another time in that cul-de-sac we played sidewalk monopoly using each square as real estate. My home that afternoon was the shaded area of a juniper tree in my friend’s neighbor’s gravel lawn.
I remember putting the AOL disc in the CD drive for the first time. Its promise was all of America. And free for the first five hundred hours, which sounded to me like several lifetimes’ worth. Without a modem, I couldn’t get past the sign-in box’s teal-and-purple swirl background. Around this time we moved because my mother wanted me to go to the nicer public high school. My father waited to go to the computer store until after the move. He didn’t like the nearby mini-mall small business computer store owner because he’d fart in front of us.
Before the internet, I wrote poems on Galaxy, a word processor with white text on a blue background in Courier New—no other font choices. I pressed arrow keys to explore menus on DOS, where I found a video game called “Captain Comic”: the protagonist, a scuba diver or astronaut walking around a landscape of colorful pixels, had to jump on the dotted likeness of bug aliens to kill them. I found a folder of pictures of women in bikinis that only the computer man who’d set up our desktop could know was there. They were labeled with names like Tanya.gif and Sonya. gif. I stared at the photos to study scientifically what breasts looked like. Before that, my only knowledge of a woman’s private parts came from Veronica, one of my cul-de-sac friends. She and I once stood in her front yard describing our genitals to each other by asking overly specific questions, like we each had mysterious, magical objects only we could see. When I was ten, one afternoon on Veronica’s bed, we kissed. My parents were not capable of finding Tanya.gif or Sonya.gif. If my mother tried to use the computer, the mouse would convulse across Windows 95 as a barrage of folders and programs opened in quick succession. At age six, I wondered if adults didn’t watch cartoons because they couldn’t make out the characters on the screen, like their minds had become so literal and unimaginative that Tom and Jerry were no longer intelligible to them. I wondered if I would ever be that kind of adult.
The first time I came was a few months before we got the internet, the summer before we moved. I was home from my summer school PE class and still wearing my gym shorts—easy access. When semen pumped out, at first I didn’t know what it was. It was an ohhhh moment. All the vague insinuations on TV shows and my mother’s prudish explanation of how babies were made—it all suddenly made sense. It smelled like rotting ocean life and basically peed out. I didn’t tell anyone, but my penis was semi-erect with a large, soft, unmovable lump on one side of the interior for several weeks.
The new house was especially isolated. I tried being outdoorsy in the new neighborhood, and dogs at fences would bark and gnash their teeth as I walked alongside, giant castles of houses looming in the distance beyond the gates.
I finally signed on. In the chat room Lobby 530, there were many names—flwrpwrgrl9, SthPrkFan1, xoAlisonxo—all suggesting different tastes and humors. My eyes had to adjust to each new style of wording and punctuation. It felt strange to see content on my screen that I didn’t create.
I talked to Ceecee1234120 from Illinois, who was fourteen like me. Eventually, she stopped appearing on my buddy list, so I went back to the Lobby and met Vert420, real-life name Stacey, in Ohio. We called each other boyfriend and girlfriend. Jerry from the old neighborhood would message me asking how PERvert was doing. He was jealous, I joked, because I was with her all evening while he spent his waking life with video game characters like Sonic or Knuckles or Ecco the Dolphin.
Vert and I would create a private chat room and name it Restaurant or Swimming Pool, then send the other an invite. Our entire date would revolve around the idea of being in a swimming pool. I would type that I was swimming around Vert like a shark. She’d say she was scared. I’d say I was biting her leg and send a smile. We’d describe making out underwater. I had never made out with anyone. I had no idea if she had. She sent me her pic, a soccer team solo portrait. I had no pic to send back.
One day I found the America Online custom chat rooms, member-created spaces to supplement the AOL-themed rooms like Beanie Babies or Denver or basketball. The M4M chat rooms vastly outnumbered the other custom rooms and were organized by city and/or fetish. Men were looking for men. Right away I received a message from a boy my age in Italy wanting a long-term relationship. In his photo he had abs, dark curly hair, tan skin and a square jaw. He was shirtless, his mouth slightly ajar. I doubted it was of him, and it didn’t matter. We talked all night and I came. I sent other guys his photo and said it was me. They told me I was hot.
There was an Albuquerque M4M room. I don’t think I had any idea that there were so many gay men in the world, let alone in Albuquerque. Entering the room was the most eventful moment, as its chat members sat waiting for anyone new. I labored over my profile, with the aim of casting a wide net while also being true to my personality and taste. I went through many AOL screen names.
At school, I spent seven hours of half-awake hiding in a notebook, drawing cats and a goth, sneering, drag-queen-ish character, and then I came back to the computer. My parents interrupted to make me eat dinner and play piano, the only other piece of furniture in the small computer room. The French doors opened to the living room, where my mother watched The Nanny and my father watched the British Parliament on C-SPAN. I kept the doors closed. At 11 p.m. my mother would burst in and yank the phone cord from the wall in a dramatic show of force. Some nights I would sneak back to the computer room and plug the phone cord back into the wall, but only after waiting until my parents had gone to sleep. In the interim I listened to Tidal or Tigerlily or Eurythmics’ Greatest Hits, my first album purchase at age eleven. When I played “Sweet Dreams” to my parents, they said the music was fake, because there were no actual instruments. One time my mother paused the song. “Did she say some of them want to abuse you? Abuse?”
“No,” I said. “Amuse.”
User name: StinkyBird
Website: AOL chat room
Date: March 1998
Location: Albuquerque, NM
Summary of first meeting: My mother drove us to the movies
Times met: Met in person at least three times
Justin’s screen name was an achievement. With AOL’s ten-letter limit, getting a name without numbers or misspellings was hard to do, and names like StinkyBird stood out. The majority of M4M chat room screen names were some combination of their name, location, a word synonymous with male, some part of their identity that could be fetishized, a sex act or position, an impressive body part, a synonym for attractive, or their age or some arbitrary numbers. Names like StinkyBird seemed to imply that they wanted to converse or have a non-sexual connection instead of, or in addition to, sex. I wondered if the guys with sexual names had a second non-sexual screen name, and if so, whether it was because they were actually adults with their own AOL accounts. Or was it because they were closeted? If the non-sexual-named guys were more likely to be out, was it because they were more obviously gay? Or maybe they had more accepting families, which could also mean that they themselves were more liberal, more non-religious, more educated. On the other hand, they might be less tech-y if they only figured out how to make the one name. Many assumptions could be made.
I waited all evening for StinkyBird to appear in my buddy list, and when he did, I double-clicked immediately.
Justin, who hoped to become a makeup stylist, had dyed-blond, curly hair, a medium-brown complexion, and a nasally voice; he was about 5’6” and very skinny. My mother drove us to a movie, thinking Justin was a friend from school, which was basically true.
Once, a boy from Denver sent me his photo in the mail, which I hid between two free wellness planners my parents didn’t want. My mother would reorganize all my belongings when I wasn’t home—some of my possessions would disappear completely—so when his yearbook picture and letter disappeared, I was sure she’d found them. This was at least a year before my mother pounded on my door, entered my bedroom, paused, then erupted: “Stephen, are you a homosexual?” Her tone told me there was a right and a wrong answer. I looked her in the eye and said no. “Are you sure?” I said yes, I was sure. My mother told me many times that if a homosexual man tried to hurt me, she would beat the shit out of him.
Once, my mother said I walked like I had a stick up my butt. Another time, my mother almost saw me trying to put a stick up my butt. It was a five-foot-long wooden pole. I stood on my bed and slowly sat down on it. I had a throbbing erection the whole time. As she opened the door, I screamed, and it seemed like she closed it before she could see.
On a regular basis, my mother and I would argue at the dinner table. Once, when she told me I couldn’t use the computer, I dumped an entire glass of water on her head, completely soaking her. Then she quickly refilled it and jolted after me into the bathroom. As she splashed me in the face, I grabbed a random bottle from the bathroom closet and chased her into her bedroom, emptying the bottle’s contents all over her. The bottle happened to be hydrogen peroxide. As she put her clothes in the washer, she told my father I was the one who’d started it.