He was online, and I could tell because the green light was buzzing next to his name and profile picture. Jake Reyes Gutierrez. Available!
A heeyyy from him. A hi hi hi back from me. My fingers, thrumming with the prickling of the electrocuted. My breathing shallowed and my heart, cliché as it was, beat faster. A whats uppp from him. A pause from me. I couldn’t tell him “nothing much” because I had said that the day before, and I didn’t know what could keep his interest for much longer if I kept dancing around any plot. I could tell him about my ballet class. Would he want to know more about it? About myself?
No, I decided. Better first to entertain. I had held his interest solely in Skype conversations for two months at this point, two months since we had met each other at the same three-week camp for gifted teens and glorified resume-padders, where I had seen him in his alt-rock hair and swinging gait and I realized that if he kissed me once I would be the most goddamn overjoyed fifteen-year-old the camp program had ever seen. It had been two months since we had seen each other or interacted with the same people that ordinary conversations are built out of; “how are you doing” cannot sustain itself for as long as I yearned this, whatever it was, to go on. I would need to be Scheherazade.
A soooooo…? from him. A nothing much from me. A borringgg from him. I made a mental note to do exciting things. we should video!! he typed. i can’t, I typed. I was typing in the basement of my house, a former workout room turned into a family office when I started high school and my parents didn’t want me isolating myself in my room. My father would periodically enter and leave, sometimes carrying a glass with the tiniest amount of good scotch. Besides, I was supposed to be doing homework.
i wanna see you, he typed. My fingers shook as I moved them across the keyboard. He wanted to see me. See me, behold me. Did he ever close his eyes and see me? I could do that with him, easy. The way his hair moved across his face. The ridiculous way he would shake it out of his eyes. The scar by his mouth. okay, I typed. but I’m supposed to be studying. I could see that he was typing, the speech bubble filling and refilling with tinier bubbles. okay we’ll turn off the sound, he finally typed. I muted my computer and my screen filled with his video call. Jake Reyes Gutierrez is calling you! Ping ping, ping ping ping. Jake Reyes Gutierrez is calling you!
Then his face was on my computer screen, staring out next to my essay on Othello and my busy dock. He waved, and the motion of his hand blurred in the video call, freezing briefly as he moved his face closer to the screen. I was suddenly conscious of my face, the way it made my skin look redder than it was. I waved back. He moved his eye to his camera and blinked once. The video call stuttered again. For a second, just his eye, frozen in a closed-eye blink, was captured on my screen.
I will preserve certain details in case he is reading this (and if you are, hello! It’s been a while!). Jake Reyes Gutierrez (which is not his name) was tall and slender in a boybandish way, wore tight pants, loved Angels and Airwaves and cared too much about the way his hair might fall carefully over his eyes.
I remember the routine of turning on my MacBook in the basement office, keeping in mind the calculation from Chicago to London. It was six hours ahead. This would be right before he went to sleep, although he had confessed to me the day before that he had been sleeping less recently. I took this to mean that he was sleeping less to stay up and talk to me, which thrilled me more than I could express so I attempted to in a diary that I tried and failed to keep.
There’s much I’ve still kept. The underwater radar sounds of Skype as it turned on. The volume of it bleeping, neon-loud. Ping, ping ping ping ping ping. Ping to heartbeat, exact correlation. The second of hoping, preparing for disappointment if he wasn’t online. I would then resolve myself to an hour or two of unproductivity while I waited for the impending ping that would tell me yes that would tell me hi that would tell me my day would go slightly better for me, because of him, because of (more simply) the single sound of the Skype as reassurance. The recollection that perhaps this wasn’t the healthiest way to be feeling about someone who I surely would not see for a while, and who I suspected did not share my intensity.
It will surprise none who knew me at fifteen that the most I had ever done with a guy was to slow dance with Kitt Perleman at Michael Rosenfield’s Bar Mitzvah and kiss Jordan Brenner on the resisting cheek at Camp Chi some few years earlier. I would spend evenings in my bedroom wearing my floor length nightgown, wondering what virginity felt like and if I would miss it when it was gone. I kissed no one. I wished on every eyelash I rubbed off. I was old enough at fifteen to know that I should be falling in love or something similar to it, and I’d kept track over this whole process for long enough to recognize the symptoms when they came.
I secretly planned to lose my virginity to him when he came back to Chicago, if he ever did. I’d whisper his name into my pillow and believe I was going mad with wanting. I would learn later that he had a girlfriend throughout a lot of these daily Skypes, and I was far from the only girl stateside he was Skyping. But the only thing I could do to mitigate this infatuation was exactly the opposite of what I could have done to get over him. So we kept talking. We would never really acknowledge how much we spoke online, even when we met up in person. To say it made it real, and it comforted both of us, I think, to keep some intimacies unsaid. Or at least that’s how I spun it.
For however long we kept our screens open, we could create a space despite our distance. I wrote his name everywhere. I’d tell whoever asked me that we weren’t exactly dating, but like, you know. If only he didn’t live in London! I would lament to friends, slyly to my hairdresser who would always ask if I had a boyfriend yet or what. If only he didn’t live in London, imagining myself pining for a knight sent to battle, a hero soldier shipped to a foreign base. All my senses were waterlogged. I should have seen through it.
If he also lived in Chicago, he would have been able to see me for who and what I was at fifteen: studious, often boring. He would have found some of my prettier friends (he was very pretty) and they would have known the ways to ensnare him. I never took my clothes off on Skype, although I was vaguely aware that some girls did. All I had were stories.
With this distance, I could lie. Jake Reyes Gutierrez was perpetually wondering about my day. Most days, I was perpetually thinking about him. So I got creative about it. I invented lovers and videogame marathons, excursions like “city tag” which “is basically what everyone does in Chicago, like hide and seek but in buildings, you just hide everywhere downtown, but only on a city block, and people try and find you up in buildings!” With this distance, I could control all variables. He would never have to see me without a filter. Of course this filter worked both ways, but I didn’t think about that.
It didn’t matter who he was, or if any of this was even real to him. I would have fallen just as hard. The machine was already rigged up. We had no pet names. Sometimes he was flippant, and would mention the names of girls he kissed but got jealous at the people I would lie about.
“Tell me about Lana,” I typed once. I had logged on to Facebook a month into our daily online conversations to a new status from him: Jake Reyes Gutierrez and Lana Worthington are in a relationship. I had liked the status. I felt like an idiot. Would he dodge it? Pretend like it wasn’t real? Or that I wasn’t real. I had initiated most of the conversations but this one he had started, right after he got my “like” notification. As if to acknowledge it. How could he have so much time in his day to talk to both of us? “lana’s great,” he said. “i’m really happy about it. but how are youuu.” I remember wondering if Lana Worthington got the notification too, if she recognized my name or ever asked him about me. I should have stopped talking to him at this point, but I didn’t.
I treaded between dual infidelities. I wasn’t a bad person because I liked him and this was him betraying me. He wasn’t a bad person because he wasn’t cheating, we were just talking. He couldn’t be in love with her if we were talking every day. He couldn’t be in love with me if he had a girlfriend who was prettier than me.
If I didn’t think about it too hard I could still tell my friends that my almost-boyfriend was from across the ocean. I thought he looked like Freddie from the British T.V. show Skins, and in my head I gave him all the same qualities.
He became everything about intimacy without the imperfect parts of knowing someone, like weird sex and chest colds and fights and the annoying ways we all repeat ourselves with the people we learn to love. So it makes sense that when we met up a year after we first met, this time when I was on a family vacation visiting London, we fumbled for each other with the lights on.
He met me by my hotel. I had planned this meeting for months, and had envisioned it for longer. There would be some sort of sweeping music, we would kiss and there would be cobblestones.
When I saw him, I went silent. He was taller than I remembered him being, his hair exactly the same.
“So. Do you want to see a movie?” he asked as we walked away from my hotel.
“Sure. Whatever you want to do.”
“We could go to Camden?”
“I have to stay in the area.” My parents were strict on this one.
We wouldn’t say anything on the Underground to the mall movie theatre, or much else for the rest of the time we were together. We held hands during X-Men and it felt like a consolation.
On the way back, we stood in at the end of the train car, legs brushing against each other each time it shuddered to a stop. Gloucester Road. High Street Kensington. The sounds of each station drifting in before the doors closed with a tinny click. Mind the gap! We held onto the same handrail. The old ladies sat quietly in their seats next to us. I looked at our faces in the window, the subterranean dark zooming outside. If I stared hard enough our faces could blend into it, wavering like we were coming through water. I wouldn’t tell him that I almost didn’t go to my school winter formal because I figured what was the point in going if it would just be to take pictures so he could search them online.
I wouldn’t tell him that I was onto him, that somewhere between the movie theatre and the train stop I realized what we were to each other was not equal. I wouldn’t tell him I sometimes fantasized about meeting his girlfriends and becoming fast friends. We would talk about him. He had moved on from Lana Worthington by now, I think. Lauren McCall. She had liked my birthday post on his wall. Would we recognize each other?
When he brought me back to my hotel I kissed him tentatively on the cheek. I removed my jacket and turned on my computer, and after a few hours of chatting on Facebook I took my computer into the bathtub for some privacy (in our hotel room, my sister and I had to share a bed).
We talked about the movie, about my trip. About how cool it looked for him to look through my vacation photos while playing the new Death Cab for Cutie album. I remembered one night in Chicago, how after a conversation stretched into its third hour and it was past four a.m., I had set the computer on the pillow beside me, and laughingly, he did the same.
“go to sleeeeeep,” he had typed. “it’s funny almost like we woke up next to each other.”
I remembered thinking in that moment about how sleeping beside someone in the silence of their own breathing is the deepest intimacy, and only thought about it again when I whispered this to the man I am currently kissing. (This one said nothing back, only grinned after I pressed my lips to his, hands twined through my own.) I wonder sometimes at the time I wasted, or what life I could have been inhabiting had I not been worried about embellishing my own. At this point, I didn’t think it could have felt any more real. I woke up the next morning in London with the porcelain bathtub faucet jabbing into my back. The afterimage of his face on Skype was still open on my computer.