A reader mentioned to me in an email that she was intrigued by my bio at the end of one of my books, and I thought I might tell you another story of mine. No vampires or magic in this one, but it’s all real…
It starts the year after I finished high school. Rather than going to college, I went into a program that prepares overachievers into entering ‘Sciences Po’, which are schools in France that give a path to administration and political careers, among other ‘big’ jobs. Now, I wasn’t that much of an overachiever myself, but my high school counselor had convinced me I’d do well on that path, so I thought, why not? Three months later, I knew it wasn’t for me, but at least, I made some very good friends in my class – and one of them, a theater-geek and unabashed poet named Mathieu, seemed like he might become more than a friend…
Because my late-teens self was a tiny little bit over the top, I found nothing better to do than to present him with a gift (the soundtrack of the last movie we’d seen together)… on Valentine’s Day.
He understood where I was going with that really fast. He made it clear that it wasn’t going to happen even faster.
I went from crushing to crushed in a blink and must have made such a pathetic sight that another friend, Sophie, dragged me out in town that weekend for some retail therapy. Since shopping was never quite my cup of tea, we ended up in some fancy new store that had just opened: an internet café. The internet was brand new in France at the time and we were both eager to experiment. Well, all right, I was more eager than she was. The first thing I typed in a search box was Star Wars – yes, I confess, I am a nerd.
The first link that came up was for a site called ‘Chatterbox’… Do you remember chatrooms? No instant messages, back then. You had to wait for the page to reload with new messages two or three times per minute, or manually refresh when it got stuck. An efficient way to have a conversation, this was not, but I had a fun hour or two talking to people in the US who like me were fans of Star Wars.
I had so much fun, in fact, that a couple of days later I came back, this time on my own. In the following week, I came to the cafe every day after school, making new friends who lived thousands of miles away while trying to continue a now very awkward friendship with Mathieu.
One of these new friends in particular always seemed to be online when I was, and I soon learned it was because he worked in a campus library, helping other students use the internet, so he was always close to a computer. His screen name was ‘Darth T’ and over the next couple of weeks we had fun chatting about Star Wars at first, and little by little all sorts of other things…
Now this is where things get difficult for me. I’m a storyteller, and I’ve written about dozens of ways people fell in love, in an instant or over time. I should be able to tell you how and why I started having feelings for T, shouldn’t I? And how could I have feelings for someone who was little more than a name on a computer screen anyway?
Except… He soon became more than just a name.
Because the internet cafe was becoming so expensive, I convinced my mother to let me have an internet connection at home. Remember, this was the very beginning of the internet in France. I must have been one of the first to take the plunge, at least in my town, and all that because of T. I actually had to go to the office of the internet provider to sign up in person!
He sent me a picture of himself, wearing a suit and an overcoat – very classy. I still have it in my wallet to this day. I later learned he was dressed so nicely because he’d been on his way to a funeral… he’s more of a jeans and t-shirt person – just like I am. He sent me a book he’d been telling me about during one of our chats, the first part of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. He eventually sent me everything that had been released up to that point. He recorded cassette tapes for me, with him just talking about random things or reading poetry, as well as some music he liked. He sent me Beanie Babies (it was back when they were so popular).
These are all just things, and they’re not why I fell in love with him, but fall in love, I did.
For the next year and half, T and I fell into a sort of routine. I’d come online every day at 5am (I’m tired just remembering it!) which was 11pm for him, and we’d talk between half an hour and an hour in one of those oh-so-slow, press-to-refresh chatrooms. We emailed each other, too, two or three times a day. Every couple of weeks, I’d get something in the mail from him, whether it was one of those plush toys I mentioned, cassette tapes, books, stone pendants shaped like hearts… I sent him little presents too now and then, but I admit it wasn’t as often, because I had a plan: I was saving up for a plane ticket to come visit him in the summer. When I finally had enough money, I told him what I wanted to do and asked when would be a good time.
And he asked me not to come.
I was devastated. I cried for days and tried to change his mind, to no avail. He assured me his feelings for me hadn’t changed, and he did want to meet some day, but he didn’t think it was a good idea right then as he still lived with his mother. He thought it would be awkward. I thought it was only an excuse. We still chatted every morning/night, and we talked on the phone every Sunday, but I can’t say it was much fun. Meanwhile, the school year had ended for me, and I was looking at two months of vacation with nothing planned, as I’d wanted to go visit him.
Now, I haven’t mentioned Mathieu again since the beginning, but I should have said that after a few weeks of intense awkwardness, our friendship got back on track. By now, we weren’t going to the same school anymore, but we still met now and then for a movie outing with other friends or just to hang out. He offered a sympathetic ear as I lamented about T’s request for me not to come. He offered more than that: his family had a seaside apartment where they were all going for the summer, and an empty guest room to fill. It was mine if I wanted to get some fresh air for a week or two.
I took Mathieu’s offer and joined him and his family in their vacation apartment. I’d met his folks before and they were quite nice, and since I needed a distraction, I thought, why not?
And all right, I’ll admit it, a tiny part of me hoped that T would get a little jealous that I was going on vacation with another young man… He assured me it was fine with him, but the last time we talked on the phone before I left he did sound a little miffed. Balm to my wounded heart!
I resolved to have a good time and try not to think of T too much, but after only a few days – on a Sunday – I caved in and gave him a call, at the time he usually called me on Sundays. I couldn’t talk very long – international calls from payphones are expensive! – but it was good to hear his voice, and even better to hear him say that maybe next year it’d be nice for me to come visit him…
I was quite determined to make that ‘maybe’ a reality!
As I was in university at the time, I wouldn’t have a long enough vacation until the next summer, so I started planning for the trip. I continued to save up by doing small jobs on the weekends, I woke up early every day to chat online, we talked on the phone every weekend and sometimes during the week, too…
I’d call him at ridiculously early (for me) hours, and to avoid waking up my parents I’d sit on my windowsill with the window almost closed behind me. I’d forgotten about it until I started typing this…
Every week or so I continued to receive a package from him with plush toys, cassette tapes, books… Later, I’d tease him about the amount of money he spent on stamps. He probably could have visited me instead of waiting for the next summer if he hadn’t spent so much on packages!
That Christmas, he sent me a very nice agenda – Hobbit themed, if I remember correctly – and I, who had never kept a diary, started journaling every day with little thoughts, drawings, tickets of movies he always saw before me and that we discussed, and so on. I should look for it and see if I can scan a page or two to show you.
Time seemed to crawl but finally in the spring I booked my flight and held on to my tickets for three months. I flew out on July 2nd, 1997 with my heart in my throat and enough hopes to fill the ocean I was crossing.
So here I was, 19 years old, crossing the Atlantic Ocean on my own with my hopes, my imperfect English, my little black dress bought especially for the occasion… but no fear.
Looking back and even knowing how things turned out, I want to shake my head at how fearless I was. Or should I say naive? So many bad things could have happened if T had been anyone other than who he claimed to be. Nowadays, everyone has heard of catfishing and how some people trick others over the internet. But back then, the internet still felt new, and meeting someone on the net, falling in love through emails and chatrooms was strange enough without adding the possibility that one of the two people might be deceiving the other.
I came out of the plane past 10pm on July 2nd. T was right there with his camera in one hand and a bouquet of roses in the other. I have a picture of myself when I first saw him. I have the biggest smile on my face.
I spent two months with T that summer, and they are a bit of a blur. We went to the movies, we had picnics by the lake, including on the 4th of July with his closest friend and wife, who became good friends of mine, I met all his family, I even got to see where he worked: he was a substitute in a library at the time, and on the days he worked I’d go with him and just sit and read all day. What sticks out the most in my mind was that he was the very same person I’d fallen in love with through emails and chatrooms and phone calls.
Oh! And I should mention that in the two months I was there, he must have taken me to a bookstore at least half a dozen times (remember Waldenbooks, US peeps? Gosh I miss those stores). This would be a recurring theme in our lives!
All too quickly, it was time for me to go back home. University would start soon. Leaving was made harder because as far as we knew we wouldn’t see each other again until the next summer. This was pre-2001, so he was allowed to stay with me until I boarded my plane, after which he went on the observation roof to wave goodbye to me. To be honest, I didn’t see him, but I knew he was there and that was enough.
Do you think I waited a full year to see him again?
Of course I didn’t! A Christmas time, I surprised him… or at least I tried to. I’d called his mother to make sure she was okay with me ‘invading’ her home for the holidays, and while she was fine with it and promised to keep my secret, she dropped enough hints that he guessed something was up…
We had a nice couple of weeks, and I got to experience my first Cleveland winter… brrrr! We also spent his birthday together. Too short, but a great time.
Seven long months passed before I could go back. By then, I was 21 so I brought over a bottle of champagne. We drank it to celebrate our engagement.
With our engagement started the longest wait of my life… or at least the longest wait until we started trying to grow our family.
You might have heard of the ‘fiancée visa’. There was a reality tv show about it recently (not that I ever watched, it seemed to hit too close to home!). Basically before we could get married we had to prove to the US immigration services that we were indeed in love and that this was not just fraud for me to get into the US. There was an application that took weeks to be approved, then I had to go to Paris for an interview at the US embassy during which I showed entire picture albums, reams of phone bills, letters, and so forth. I must have been convincing because I went home with a visa in my passport allowing me entry in the United States with the stated purpose of getting married within 90 days.
In January 2001, he came to France for the first time to meet my entire family. We traveled back together on February 1st… and on February 20th, 5 years to the day after we’d first talked on the internet, we were married by a pastor named – I swear it’s true – Link. In February 2018 we celebrated 17 years of marriage and 22 years of knowing each other.
So far, the HEA is true to its name…