Sunday, December 28, 2008

Damn those Mediterranean fishing boats! Damn them to hell!

Sometime during the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I created a second email account with the intent of sending out stupid, cryptic emails to all my friends, mainly to see what kind of reaction I'd get. These were the days before spammers became a real problem, the days when most people I knew would see an unfamiliar name under the "Sender" column and think, "Hm. I wonder who THAT is," and open it to see, rather than, "Hm. Spam filter must've missed one," and send it to the trash.

The emails themselves were bizarre, stream-of-consciousness rants in the style of an Old Testament prophet, for no other reason except it was what came to mind at the time, and it made me giggle. They usually began with something along the lines of, "Woe betide the unruly ostrich..." or "Hearken not unto the caterpillars of perfidy, they that dangle from the shovel in the yard..." I wish I had the emails still, but I deleted them all in a fit of repentance some years later, so everything here is pretty much a paraphrase.

I was seventeen, bored as hell, and up way too late on a 56K modem connection. I don't know what else to say about it.

Most of my friends had me figured out within the week. Apparently, I'm some kind of predictable, though it pleased me a little to know that my friends' reasoning was that if it walks like a deranged psycho and quacks like a deranged psycho, then it's probably Amanda.

One of them, though---we'll call her Gwen---took a little longer to clue in. After the first couple emails, she sent me a message demanding to know who I was. I told her, lo, that my name was Jarlsburg Lovebuggy, and proceeded to channel another message from on high. It wasn't anything particularly threatening, at least, no more threatening than any unhinged ranting delivered in King James English would sound. But these were the early days, back when the internet was a place where the ratio of Normal People to Creepy People was lower than anyone felt comfortable with. You never knew What Kind of Person was out there.

"Who the hell are you?" she finally demanded. "Why are you sending this to me? Where did you get my email address? DO YOU KNOW AMANDA [my last name, misspelled]?!?!?!?!?!"

And there it was. The game was up. Unless...

I stared at the screen, knowing I was at a crossroads. I could do like I'd done with the others, and say, "Yep, you caught me." We'd all have a good laugh, and move on with our lives. Instead, I shot back the first thing that popped into my head.

"I'm sorry I scared you. I really didn't mean to. It's just that, I'm so lonely..."

I don't remember the exact reply, or how much of my story I told in that first email, but that's not important. What's important is, over the course of the next several months, I constructed a character I named Jessica. Jessica was an orphaned ninth-grader in Iowa who lived with her cruel aunt and cousin, whose only friend was her little budgie* named Froot Loop, and who had just wanted someone to talk to and wasn't sure how to go about it.

Her parents died in a Mediterranean fishing boat accident when she was very young. My mother fell into a vat of live shrimp and was trampled to death under the indifferent, scuttling legs of a million beady-eyed crustaceans. My father, paralyzed in a state of grief and shock, fell overboard and drowned.

I fleshed her out with a multitude of details, ones I can't even remember anymore. I remember a time, somewhere toward the middle of the game, where I responded to one of those ubiquitous "getting to know you" surveys, trying to make her my opposite. I love white chocolate! And any poetry by Jewel! I think I was trying too hard at that point. But it didn't matter.

I recounted the few hazy memories I had of my parents before they'd died, how my mother would make Velveeta sundaes and sing me "Love In An Elevator" as a lullaby every night before bed.

I built up entire stories around some truly awful free verse I'd written under the influence of caffeine and friends who were now in on the game. For example, I spent a week on an elaborate story about a beer-drinking squirrel that I'd befriended and that my evil cousin had killed off---all so I could send her this poem:
The squirrel of my hope
is dropped
into the blender of despair.

The lid is shut.

Whirl. Squeak. Frappe.
I kept trying to make it so absurd that she'd call bullshit, but she never did. It was growing out of control. I didn't feel like I was telling the story, most of the time. The story had a life of its own. I was just along for the ride. My family, who'd thought this was pretty funny at first, began to wonder if I had any sort of conscience.** In the quiet, nagging corners of my mind, I began to wonder the same thing.

I knew I needed to stop this, but I didn't know how.

And I'm not sure why I didn't just own up in the beginning, like I had done with the rest of my friends. Maybe it was because she'd confronted me by email, where I hadn't had to worry about keeping a straight face (not a reliable skill of mine). Or maybe it's because she was the last one left, and I hadn't been ready to give up the game just then. Or maybe it's because, deep down, I'm a bit of an asshole. I don't know. But here it was, months along now, and Gwen was emotionally invested in this person who didn't even exist. It's not that she was stupid. She wasn't. See, she had her doubts sometimes, but she chose to believe me anyway. She wanted to trust me. I'd presented myself as such a vulnerable character, that she didn't dare risk hurting me even more by calling me a liar. I probably would have done just the same.

I don't remember how and when I 'fessed up, but I did, and I had to face up to the fact that I hurt a friend. And I'd like to say that I never did it again, but a few weeks later when I first started using AIM, I convinced her I was a Zimbabwean exchange student hired by the CIA for a top secret operative, who grew up wearing pink hot pants from the charity bin. To be fair, I thought for sure she'd call me out this time. Instead, she developed a bit of a crush. So basically, neither of us learned our lesson.

I'm not sure where I was planning on going with all this. I realize I haven't really told this story to a lot of people, not really because I'm ashamed of it, but because I feel like I'm not ashamed enough. I hurt a friend, and don't feel great about that, but whenever I think back on all this, that's not what I think of first. What I remember first is the fun of the story, of playing the game and having people fooled, even if only for a little while.

The idea of writing fiction has intimidated me for a while now. It seems like a language I can understand, but can't speak myself. I've spent the past couple years following Fred Clark's excellent analysis of Left Behind over at Slacktivist, as much for the comments from the other Slacktivites as for Fred's original posts. And while I've appreciated the education, it's also been sort of discouraging: I read those books in high school, and never picked up on how poorly they were written. So how can I trust myself? The voice of my internal critic joins with their voices, and I'm petrified. I can't turn it off long enough to create. I'm afraid I'm just as bad; worse, even. At least if I don't try, I'll never have to face that.

But then I remember these idiot games I played, when I was bored, and wasn't worrying about what people would think. What else was I doing, really, but crafting fiction? I wasn't worried about whether it was any good, or profound, or original---it was fun. And I that's what I miss. I miss the fun.

I'd like to find that again.

* Yep, that's where "The Woeful Budgie" first came from. Mostly I just liked the sound of it, though I added the pet bird explanation in as a way to make it all make sense in the context of the Jessica story.
**Well, except for my Aunt Mary, who gave me a blender for Christmas that year with a toy squirrel in the pitcher holding a sign that read "Frappe, please". Incidentally, the title of this post comes from a letter from Aunt Mary I found earlier tonight, presumably one she sent in reply to my telling her about all this mess. She writes:
[Gwen] sounds like a great friend to have...I miss having friends for torturing. And it takes a very special person to do that to their friends. But here's my advice to you - 15 years from now, when she hunts you down and stalks you through letters and phone calls, then wants to hook up with you again, by meeting at some casino in Primm, NV, DON'T GO! Nothing good will come of it...she'll talk non-stop, run over anything you might want to say, and then try to french kiss your boyfriend when you finally get to get the hell out of there. It's a nightmare no one should have to experience.