The summer before I turned 16, I would frequent random chat rooms online because I had too much time on my hands.

One night specifically, I was being obnoxious on a chat room and ‘singing’ Catch a Falling Star (writing the lyrics down in capital letters) when I got a private message from someone continuing the lyrics with me. I smiled and introduced myself to this person who clearly had good, classy music taste, and that was the moment a boy named Sameer (Sam) Rodriguez entered my life.

From the first conversation, this is what I knew about the boy: he was 21-years-old, half Italian/half Pakistani, Muslim, and British. He loved football, and we bonded over bad grammar and our love for Perry Como. I quickly added him to MSN (yes, it had been the days of good ol’ MSN), and we continued talking about nothing for three more hours. I was already half-infatuated with the boy, and I hadn’t even seen or heard him speak.

That quickly changed when two weeks later, he signed back onto MSN, and he had a photo of himself as his DP (display picture, for those of you who aren’t lingo savvy).

Ladies and gents, this was a boy who the gods themselves blessed. I remember asking him how tall he was as he looked like he towered over his friend in the photo, and he said he was six-foot-four.

There ya have it: I was sold.

Add ‘Good boy Muslim’ and a graduate of Oxford University? Icing on the already-too-sweet cake, my friends.

While I gushed over his photos, he never asked me for a picture. While I was at first weirded out that he didn’t care how I looked, I was also going through an extreme phase of insecurity and had no photos up online anyways, so I almost appreciated that my personality was more important to him.

Soon, however, he suggested we speak over microphone, and we began holding all our conversations on Skype. The first time I heard his British accent, I remember actively swooning and hyperventilating on the inside. That first call, he also played his piano and guitar for me while I was essentially dying on the other end. The first boy I ever spoke to in my life was the materialized version of a dream I never thought could come true.

Of course, I didn’t think he was real. I actually suggested that he must be joking or that he was a figment of my imagination, and he got mad at me and defended his existence with such fervor that I felt ashamed for even mentioning it. I dropped it, but the entire month later I still doubted his perfect-to-a-T existence.

Soon, Ramadan had started, and I’d always speak to him right after Iftaar.

I would quickly down a date and some laban, and then rush upstairs to talk to him. Influenced by his piety, I started going to Taraweeh (nightly Ramadan prayers). Every night, I would walk to the masjid with him on my mind. I thought he was such a good, kind human soul, and I prayed to God that I could be more like him ‒ more like someone he could love.

Later that month, I found out that he was in love with a girl named Dana and that his mother had passed away.

He wouldn’t talk a lot about his mother and his family, and that was fine; I wasn’t going to push him. But he would talk a lot about Dana. My perfect boy was supposedly in love with his perfect girl, but she was taken. I wanted him to both be with her and not. I felt selfish and jealous, but regardless, every night I would pray that he’d be happy. Just happy.

Whether that’d be with me or with her.

That’s how I spent the summer before my sophomore year in high school: starting to fall in love with a boy who thought of me only as a faceless online friend. But then around the time school started, he stopped signing onto Skype while I was on. Only from his occasional status updates did I find out that he had begun dating Dana. Otherwise, two months of radio silence from him made me think that I was silly to believe a boy like him would ever continue talking to a girl like me.

Eventually, though, he started signing in again, and we began talking frequently once more ‒ almost as though the last two months had never happened.

It was in those months that I really fell for him, as we spoke a minimum of 5 hours each day, and he knew how I looked like at this point. I wrote the sappiest love essays and poems about my unrequited love for him, and I spent each of my days waiting to hear his voice.

By the end of January, he had to “leave” again, but unlike last time, I was warned. He said he just needed a break from the internet, and that he would be back. During his break, it almost felt like he deleted his existence from the internet. His Youtube videos, his Tumblr, his Skype photos and statuses: it was like he had disappeared. I, of course, was taking the whole ordeal hard ‒ I was in a state of crying into my pillowcase for the entire first month, emailing him only once to ask if he was okay.

But by the second month of his disappearance, I was starting to get over his crushing absence.

That was, of course,  the moment he decided to reply to my email with some dumb three bullet answer about what was going on in his life. The lack of empathy and shits-given in his email struck me, and I was all-of-a-sudden confused about why I was giving all my time and energy to this boy who couldn’t give a shit about me or my feelings.

I was effectively Over It. I was Done.

This boy was not worth my time.

Why had it taken me so long to decide this, I didn’t know, but I wasn’t going to spend any more time thinking about it. Somewhere in my Tumblr, you can actually find a post I had written about how happy I was that I was finally over him. I wrote the post as a way to free myself, and it was the first time in a long time that I remember feeling like something had been lifted off me.

So now we are in month three of his disappearance, and I get another email from him. He said he found the post I wrote about being over him. He was on my Tumblr, he had gone through 35 pages and found that post, that “I’m over him!” post. He suggested we shouldn’t talk anymore. When I first got his email, I was absolutely horrified. I got this wheezy feeling in my chest, like the kind you get when you’re experiencing an empty sob.

Yes, I was over him, so why was this so traumatizing?

It tore me apart because he wrote in his email how he always thought of me as a friend, and that he legitimately had no clue and how sorry he was. For the eight months prior, I obsessed constantly over whether or not he knew I liked him, or if he could feel this chemistry I felt between us. I obsessed over something that was essentially in my head. I was analyzing and investigating emotions that only existed on my end.

I felt like I had been gaslit this whole time.

But then something inside of me clicked and all of a sudden, I was angry. I was fucking livid. I agonized myself with this secret and never planned on telling him because I actually valued our friendship, and he goes and reads about it on my Tumblr when I thought he was through with me completely and suggests we don’t talk anymore?

Fuck that noise.

We were not going to abide by his rules again. This time, I would decide. This time, it was my prerogative.

So, being the wordy and talkative person that I am (can you tell by now?), I sent him a 5-page email explaining everything. It was so refreshing, so uplifting. I told him I was over him, but that didn’t mean I was over our friendship. I wrote the email with a big smirk and plenty of girl power in my veins, and it showed that I was hella pleased with myself in the email.

He quickly responded saying he was extremely surprised and amused by my unexpected response, and that he would love to Skype tomorrow.

And so began two of the happiest months my short little life had ever lived. Because I no longer felt like I had the unrequited love of ever unavenged heroine on my shoulders, I was much more myself, and he was more himself.

The first night we spoke, I hung up first, and I hung up first that entire week because I was finally in control. This was my turf, now.

But, as you might expect, my feelings for him began to creep up again, but this time I wasn’t going to sit pretty while I created imaginary scenarios. I confessed and asked if my feelings were imaginary, and he said no, this time they were not imaginary. This time, we both felt what was happening between us.

You could have pasted my smile on a goddamn Crest ad that night.

We began talking so much that we started falling asleep on the phone together. So I’d wake up to him, fall asleep to him, and spend the day receiving the cutest texts from him. I felt amazing, and everyone could tell. I was happier at school, happier at home, happier with myself. It is almost sad just how much we allow one person to control our happiness because as easily as they may give it to us, they may take it back.

After a while of dating, we were both beginning to think of the future.

I’m Arab, and he was Pakistani: it was in our nature to think strategically about our romantic future. But I started to get nervous because I thought, “This is ridiculous, he’s ready to settle down, and I’ve experienced zilch. Surely, I’ll be a different person by the time I am in college?” (I am.) I was genuinely beginning to fear commitment.

But these fears were always short-lived, as his voice instantly soothed away most of my worries. I was infatuated with him: everything else shouldn’t matter. We planned to meet that summer in Michigan when we would both be there for vacation. I was ready to meet him because I was ready to meet who I thought was the love of my life.

It was a Friday that we said our first “I love you”s. We both were freaking out, but it was a nice kind of freaking out because I did really love him. He made me feel beautiful, kind, funny ‒ he made feel wanted and loved. He had become the escape to my then 16-year-old’s troubles.

But the next morning, Saturday at 10 AM exactly, he texted me saying he was really upset about something. He said he had to tell me something, but he didn’t know how, and it wasn’t going to be easy. When I read that, I thought he was going to tell me he needed to take time off and disappear again. I was preparing myself to accept and understand it when he told me. But then I got on Skype.

I said, “Sameer, what’s up?”

He replied, “I’m not Sameer.”

When I read this, I thought, “Oh shit, what happened to Sameer? Is his crazy ex Dana talking to me now? His cousin?” But instead, all I wrote was, “…”

He replied, “I’m a girl.”

At thWhen I read that, I froze. I’d like to say that everything I knew came falling apart, and I was freaking out, but nothing did, and I wasn’t. I was just…blank. I said, “What do you mean? Explain.”

They replied with, “I know you hate liars, and I was lying to you the entire time, this entire thing has been a big lie.”

I was upstairs when I was reading the messages, but I couldn’t sit alone and continue reading, so I headed downstairs where my little sister was sitting, and I looked at her and gave her that weird chuckle people give when they’re nervous or losing it. I felt like I was both. So I held her hand as we looked at the messages they were sending.

I said I wanted to Skype them.

I needed to Skype them. This couldn’t be true.

And so that familiar ring of Skype rang in my ears as I prepared for the unexpected. That same ring I’d wait hours for during Ramadan, that same ring that’d brought the dumbest smile on my face after months of not hearing it. That ring that was the soundtrack to every conversation I’d ever had with the perfect boy of my dreams.

The ring stopped, and they answered.

The voice was Sam’s. It was his voice. But in a girl’s tone. The way he would sigh and say hello or salaam, I heard. It was still British. It was still Sam. But it was in a girl’s voice. I would not be able to explain how that felt, but my emotions quickly went through shock to pain to sadness to horror and then to disgust.

Ultimately, it was eery. We only spoke for maybe 10 mins, and I don’t remember exactly what either of us said, but I remember asking them to never contact me ever again.

I hung up knowing Sam Rodriguez never existed, but Sam’s alleged cousin Nida could deepen her voice to sound manly. Nida always wanted to transition, always had feelings for the same sex growing up. Nida existed; Sam did not.

Now, in explaining this, I want to make it clear: to me, I’m more than okay if you have feelings for the same gender. More than okay if you’re trans*.

But what wasn’t okay in the situation was how I was used as a pawn.

When I first hung up, I did not cry. I did not do anything. I just sat there. My little sister took the laptop from me and began deleting everything that had anything at all to do with him. I stopped her because I had to do it myself. I had to delete everything myself. I didn’t say anything as she hugged me, I didn’t say anything when she started crying. She knew him, she spoke to him and loved him almost like an older brother.

My mom, my best friends, even my English teacher ‒ they all knew about him. My little sister saw me cry 4 months ago when I was unrequitedly in love with Sam Rodriguez – when I’d write essays and poems about Sam Rodriguez. She saw the way life ran more vibrantly through me when all my love was finally coming back to me.

While this was happening, I tried to play The National, but I winced because Sam used to hate them ‒ but Sam did not exist. Every thought I had ended with that fact, and that is when denial set in. I had to email Sam, but not really Sam because he does not exist, and I asked so many questions.

Who was the boy in all those thousands upon thousands of photos sent to me, that boy whose face I had immortalized in my mind? Who was Dana? Why did they do this to me?

I woke up Sunday with a conviction that he had to be real, that this was some sort of joke. I emailed them trying to bargain, trying to plead that they could be lying about something else, that Sameer was hiding behind this elaborate lie to run away again but didn’t want me to get mad. There were weak moments where a very small part of me still believed that he was real and that he was just using this ploy to run away from me.

When they emailed back explaining who the boy in the picture was, that was the first time I remember wanting to cry.

The boy’s name was Mani, and he was nothing like Sameer. He was a heavy drinker and a known player. He was everything Sameer would have hated. But now Mani was trying to get better. He had a girlfriend with whom he was in love, and he was going to the mosque more.

After reading about Mani, I felt rejected. I felt rejected by Mani, even though Mani had no idea I existed. I don’t know why, but I did. I was angry that Mani was nothing like Sameer. He did not live up to Sameer’s standards. He was not Sameer, but he had Sameer’s face.

I know I sound crazy; I felt crazy. I wanted to stop talking about Mani because that was making me sink faster and faster. My friends asked me why I wasn’t more angry with Nida for lying, but to me, I didn’t know Nida. Yes, Nida was Sameer, but at the time I refused to believe that.

For me, all my anger and hatred was directed at Sameer. I missed Sameer.

That’s what it really came down to in the end: I missed him. I missed everything about him. I missed how he would call me babe when he was trying to comfort me, how he’d be the person I texted at a boring party, how special he made me feel. If he were real, he would be the person I would text about this. I wanted so very badly to talk to someone who did not exist.

To everyone else, I was catfished. To me, I was grieving the death of someone who did not exist. I was mourning someone who was never alive to die.

Up until this point, I have been writing this article while referencing minute details that I had written in my Tumblr blog entry at the time (the modern diary of millennials). The rest of my entries were dramatic, as you would expect from a 16-year-old. But it was more or less the waves and motions of someone trying to get over losing the boy of her dreams.

And yeah, at the time I went into a three month period of depression and couldn’t leave my bed for weeks at a time, but now?

Now this story is something I recall when I want to tell a funny/shocking story at the dinner table. I laugh about how naive I was, but I also find that I defend myself. People ask me now, but how did you not know? I have to remind them that this was happening in 2010 when Facetime wasn’t as readily available and the excuse “my laptop doesn’t have a camera” was valid.

I had his voice and his photos, and he had uploaded videos of himself on his Youtube channel. You couldn’t expect a 16-year-old to see through that. At least I don’t.

But I also don’t feel bad for myself at all now.

That was over 6 years ago, and I am a completely different person now. If it weren’t for my emotional Tumblr posts during the time it happened, I wouldn’t even be able to recall exactly how it felt. The one thing I wish I could do now is to go back to my past baby self and tell her that this is such a little blip in my history and that I would get over it. I would promise myself that one day I would be able to talk about Sam in a hilarious way, and not in a tragic, woe-is-me way.

Because with all the sadness this once gave me, it now gives me a fantastic story I can write about on a website my 16-year-old self would be so proud to be part of. 

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Sara Al-Salem

By Sara Al-Salem

Staff Writer