Once upon a time, I fell in love with an idea.
Well… an idea based on a boy – a real one.
Let me explain.
We had mutual friends, so I knew for certain that he was, in fact, a real person, but he had moved away a little over a year before we were introduced.
We used to chat on MSN for hours. I remember the eternal struggle of trying to connect to WiFi on my crappy phone or my iPod Touch when I wasn’t at home. Oh, the good old days.
We’d message each other first thing when we woke up and all throughout the day, often into the early hours of the next morning. It was the kind of friendship that surpassed geographical boundaries. If anything, the fact that we had become so close despite the distance made it feel all the more real to me.
We talked about our favorite rock bands, sent each other links to new songs we’d discovered and played 21 questions.
We were there through all of it: through each other’s young and reckless relationships, through long nights of self-inflicted existential dread and through the times we talked about our dreams enough that we felt like maybe, just maybe, we could do anything.
And I can only speak for myself when I say this, but after months and months spent hunched over my phone, it began to feel a lot like love.
I always said that we would meet one day, and he never believed me. In fact, I think he found the conviction with which I said it pretty annoying. I’d say it was fate, and he’d say that fate had nothing to do with it. Nonetheless, when I asked him what he would want me to bring from Saudi if we ever met, he said that all he wanted was a bag of spicy Cheetos and a pack of Sour Punk. We were 14 at the time.
Needless to say, our friendship didn’t last. We cared about each other, but we clashed just a little too much for it to be worth the effort anymore. To him, I was dramatic and overwhelming, and to me, he was callous and cold. That was the root of it.
Five years after we’d first met, he was accepted to study Mathematics at Oxford University, just over an hour-long train journey away from where I went to school in Birmingham.
I’d say it was fate.
I never expected anything to come of it, nor did I want anything to; I had moved on. But the need to put a face, not a picture, to a name was undeniably there. So, after several dead-end conversations of trying to make plans to meet, one day, I showed up in Oxford with a bag of Cheetos and Sour Punk.
I had reconciled with the fact that he didn’t seem particularly interested in meeting me, so I just texted him to say I was in the city and asked for his faculty building’s address so I could drop something off. Surprisingly, he seemed excited and pressed for us to meet face to face. I won’t lie, part of me wanted to say no just to prove a point, but I didn’t want my pettiness to get in the way of getting what I came for – closure.
We met in a graveyard, I can’t make this stuff up. I stood there, in my black lipstick, combat boots, and leather jacket, and watched as this guy in a navy jumper atop a white collared shirt and chinos walked up to me. When I think about watching it from a distance, I can’t help but laugh.
I don’t know what I expected; he’d always been just a person I knew through a screen. But the person in front of me wasn’t the sarcastic and witty, steadfast friend I thought I knew. He looked like the guy in the pictures, but otherwise, he was a complete stranger.
I could feel myself going into shock, and despite my better judgment, I agreed to grab a bite to eat.
We sat in some cafe on the corner of some street that I can’t remember the name of, and I picked at a chocolate muffin as I “mhm’d” and “uh-huh’d” in appropriate time to whatever he was saying. Over the course of the next hour, my state of shock morphed into something closer to hilarity.
What the fuck was I doing?
For five years, FIVE YEARS, I had expended time and energy on a person who didn’t really exist. Instead, this guy did, and I had no idea what to do with that.
When we said our goodbyes he asked for a hug and said,
“We should make plans to meet up again.”
I smiled, and before I even knew what I was saying, I replied,
“Dude, this is probably the first and last time you’re ever going to see me.”
And it was.
As silly as it all sounds, it was a really defining moment for me. I boarded my train back to Birmingham with a newfound determination to focus on what was real in my life. I remember looking at my phone and marveling at how much time I had spent falling for a person who only existed on-screen. But even though he didn’t turn out to be who I thought he was, he’ll always be the boy who taught me to look up.