Henry and Sarah would not have met outside the virtual communities the Internet facilitates. But they were both emphatic that purely digital communication could not have sustained their relationship. The first time Sarah confirmed that she shared my son’s affections, she spoke her words of love on a chat room without realizing that he had been accidentally disconnected. By the time he was able to get back online, she had left in frustration. Wooing must be difficult if you can’t even be sure the other party is there.The medium’s inadequacies are, no doubt, resulting in significant shifts in the vocabulary of love. In cyberspace, there is no room for the ambiguous gestures that characterized another generation’s fumbling first courtships. In a multi-user domain, one doesn’t type, “Henry smiles. He moves his hand subtly towards her in a gesture that might be averted at the last moment if she seems not to notice or to be shocked.” The language of courtly love emerged under similar circumstances: distant lovers putting into writing what they could not say aloud.
They may have met online but they communicated through every available channel. Their initial exchange of photographs produced enormous anxiety as they struggled to decide what frozen image or images should anchor their more fluid online identities. In choosing, my son attempted to negotiate between what he thought would be desirable to another 15 year old and what wouldn’t alienate her conservative parents.
The photographs were followed by other tangible objects, shipped between Nebraska and Massachusetts. These objects were cherished because they had achieved the physical intimacy still denied the geographically isolated teens. Henry sent her, for example, the imprint of his lips, stained in red wine on stationery. In some cases, they individually staged rituals they could not perform together. Henry preserved a red rose he purchased for himself the day she first agreed to go steady. Even in an age of instant communication, they still sent handwritten notes. These two teens longed for the concrete, for being together in the same space, for things materially passed from person to person.
Barring that, they cherished their weekly telephone calls. Talking on the telephone helped make Sarah real for Henry. When his friends at school challenged his inability to “produce” his girlfriend for inspection and asked how he knew she wasn’t a guy, he cited their telephone conversations. Even for these teens, the fluidity of electronic identities posed threats. Once, early in their relationship, Henry jokingly told Sarah that they went to the same school, never imagining that she would believe him. The results were both farcical and tragic as she searched in vain for her mystery date.
After a while, they started to fear that they might break up without ever having seen each other in the flesh and they didn’t want it to end that way. After some pleading, I agreed to accompany Henry on the trip.
Henry and Sarah first “met” in an airport. He almost didn’t recognize her since she was so different from the single photograph she had sent. From the start, their interaction was intensely physical. Henry said that what had given him the most pleasure was being able to play with her hair, and Sarah punched him in the arm so many times he was black and blue. Sarah’s mother and I watched two slouching teens shuffle through the terminal, learning to walk in rhythm.