I WISH I HAD KNOWN THE FUTURE when an instant message (IM) popped up in the top right corner of my laptop screen on June 29, 2007. In that moment, I wish I had been able to foresee all the consequences of one minor exchange and closed down that window. If I could go back now and see that message and predict the two and a half years of trauma it would cause, the relationships it would ruin, and the lives it would change, I would have ignored it, shut off my computer, and cracked open a book. Maybe I would have doused my seventeen-inch PowerBook with lighter fluid and set it ablaze. If I had known what would happen because of one seemingly inconsequential conversation, I would have quit the Internet for good, forgotten technology existed, and started writing all of my papers on stone tablets by candlelight.
But on June 29, 2007, I didn't close my computer when a little six-word message popped up in the corner of my screen. I was in no position to ignore human contact, no matter how distant and shady it was. I was fresh off my junior year of high school, by far the most stressful year of my life. All of the friends I'd had for years had outgrown me, leaving me to flail helplessly in the already choppy sea of high school. I had broken up with my first and only boyfriend six months earlier, ending an on-and-off relationship that had lasted over three years, and I had been hopelessly single ever since. All in all, I had suffered through the last six months trying to balance the SAT, the never-easy process of making new friends, AP courses, a father who was divorcing my stepmother, and a part-time job that I dreaded even more than everything else in my life. And through it all, I found myself sitting on my bed every night staring at my computer screen, riding the waves of each daily crisis completely and totally alone.
That may have been an attitude rather than a circumstance, but in high school we're all loners, at least from our own perspectives. That's the way it works. I didn't have a single friend in high school who didn't spend several hours a day with their eyes glued to a monitor. It's escapism in its most luring form, especially for people who have a hard time being themselves in person. We all find our niche. For me, it was a message board I discovered my sophomore year-a section of a theater message board pushed off to the side for those of us who wanted to talk about real life, politics, and entertainment. Despite some harassment from a particularly mean and sarcastic user (every message board has at least one), I fell in pretty quickly there. In no time I made a few 'friends,' in the loose way you can call people you've never seen face-to-face and whose last names you do not know, friends. I found a rhythm there. It was a place to go and escape the difficulty of everyday life. When I didn't feel like talking to my parents about my English essay on Death of a Salesman, I could go onto The Board (as it became known in my head) and talk about how badly I thought George W. Bush was screwing up or how last week's episode of The Office wasn't as funny as the rest of the season. And there were even people there who cared about what I had to say from time to time. No matter what kind of day I was having, I could usually count on someone posting an approving response to my hilarious comment about Britney Spears.
I had found The Board the previous summer while spending most of my days barricaded in my room. My father, who got married in 2004 and split with his now-ex-wife in late 2005, was unavailable most of the time and my friends, the few who hadn't stopped liking me in the past year, were off doing fun things with their families or each other and leaving me out. So, I sat in my room and surfed the Web. At the time I was into theater and stumbled onto prominent websites that covered the theater world. When I found The Board, I attached myself to it like a parasite, trying my best to fit in with the ragtag users of the site and making fast friends with several of the regulars, exchanging occasional e-mails or instant messages. While all my real-life friends were separating themselves from me, I was able to talk to people I had never met about the complicated sorrows of my day-to-day life, from the deteriorating relationship with the guy who was my boyfriend at the time to my concerns about my father. None of them asked anything inappropriate of me. They would talk to me about their relationship problems, they would read my writing and critique it, they would joke with me. Their interest in my life was a comfort.
My junior year had left me feeling devastated, not to mention with a lower GPA and minus one rocky relationship that had at least been something to fall back on, on the worst of days. I had walked out of school on the last day that year in a daze. I went home dreading the next two months of solitude. I sat on my bed and watched movies every day. I spent more hours of the day asleep than awake. I actually looked forward to the ten hours every weekend I spent at my job cleaning out coffeepots and sweeping floors.
For the first two weeks of the summer, I was totally lost in my own little world. I spent hours upon hours every day on The Board, refreshing every few seconds, hoping someone else would be as bored as I was and reply to my posts. By the end of June, I would have been happy to hear from Satan himself if he could have given me an hour of stimulating conversation. I was desperate.
So to say that I actually hesitated for a moment when that instant message popped up on my screen is giving me a lot of credit. If it had been from anyone else, I probably would have typed a response so fast it would have been indecipherable from all the typos. But it was from one person in particular. I knew the screen name-it was the same username he used on The Board. It was a screen name I was so familiar with that I had begun purposely avoiding it over the past few months. My fingertips paused over the keys for a moment while I read and pondered the message.
When I said earlier that I had gotten into the rhythm of The Board with relatively no trouble except for one user, I was talking about this guy. He was sarcastic. He was vindictive. He never wrote in capital letters. He was the gimmicky sort who prided himself on two things: his status as the indisputable King of The Board and his political views, which were so far to the right they would make Ann Coulter blush. We had cultivated a casual loathing of each other, though I was mostly intimidated by him. He hated my political beliefs and tended to make fun of my age. Basically, he took everything I said terribly seriously and enjoyed mocking me way too much. He had insulted me so viciously at one point I was almost certain it made me cry.
©2010. Alexis Singer. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Alexis. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442