Sunday, April 21, 2013

After Innocence

Just a little eye candy for your Sunday night. Taken at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Well, hello there. Hope everyone had a spectacular weekend. I wish I had another day off to accomplish all I want to, but alas, Monday will be here in the blink of an eye. So let's get to it. 

Tonight's entry is a personal essay that I've been working on for some time. As the title suggests, it deals with the loss of innocence. Losing innocence is, I feel, a process and cannot typically be pinned to one event that occurs in our lives (if innocence is something that can be had or lost at all... who really knows?). But the story revealed in this essay comes as close to one of those events as anything I've experienced. Furthermore, this is not a story I have shared with many, and even those closest to me will be hearing about it for the first time. 

Because I was an exceedingly introverted and secretive teenager, it was possible for me to have experiences like the one described below and keep them to myself. In high school, I tended to hold people at arm's length and was often defensive and ferociously private. I only told people as much as I wanted them to know, and I stockpiled the rest of my thoughts in a corner of my mind somewhere. I suppose it's because I've always been a bit weary of trusting others, but more than that, I've constantly battled an internal whisper that says, "You don't matter." I have control over all that for the most part these days, but it colored so much of my life for so long. 

In my early 20's, I finally began breaking out of my self-imposed exile and came to find that revealing my innermost thoughts to others is really the meat of life. Friendships and relationships require vulnerability from both parties if they are to stand a chance. Johnny taught me a lot about honesty. He was patient enough to forgive me when I held things back out of fear, but was insistent that I stop being secretive with people that I know I can trust. 

Look at me now! Sharing my stories with the entire world. Maybe I went a bit too far in the opposite direction? But seriously, I think I now value my voice as much as I do because I didn't allow myself to have one for so long. Anyhow, thanks for listening to my voice. I am unendingly grateful for all the encouragement I have received thus far. 
Johnny loves To Catch a Predator, but my relationship with it is more complicated...

I was born in 1980, so I still remember what life was like before technology took over. I am grateful that my generation can recall that simpler time when a phone was something on the wall in the family room, not in your back pocket. We remember answering machines and the special magic of rewinding a tape to check messages. When we wanted to record a television show, we had to program a VCR to do it for us, and even then it only worked about 50% of the time. Things were quieter, less hurried, boring even. Kids today cannot even fathom what it means to be truly bored. 

I was in high school by the time the internet was becoming ubiquitous. When my parents decided to subscribe to America On-Line, my brother and I almost passed out from the excitement. My whole family shared one desktop computer that was stationed in the living room. We all gathered around as my Dad connected the phone line to the modem and we signed on to AOL for the first time. There was a series of odd screeches and white noise that made us cover our ears. Then, a loud booming voice announced “You’ve got mail!” and we all looked at each other with eyes wide from excitement.

We didn’t have any hard and fast rules about internet usage, just a general understanding that we should keep it brief during the day so as not to tie up the phone line. I knew that my parents could come up behind me and check out what I was doing at their will, so during the day I just browsed web sites for bands and TV shows I liked.  I saved my questionable activities for late at night.  I was a good kid and my parents trusted me, so in general they took a “hands-off” approach to raising me. By this point, they allowed me to pretty much dictate my own bedtime, so from 10:00pm until sometimes 2:00 in the morning, I’d cruise the sleazy alleyways of the AOL Chat Rooms. I meticulously crafted my on-line persona via my AOL profile and crammed as much info about my likes and dislikes into those few lines as was allowed. I never lied or misled anyone, but I spotlighted the things about me that I felt were more interesting (my taste in music, books and film) and drew attention away from the parts of me that weren’t as interesting (my appearance).

I found something on-line that I was not finding in real life. High school was tough for me to negotiate, which I’m aware is not a unique experience. However, I do believe I was more insecure than most. Instead of trying to fit in, I tried to disappear. I dressed in the boxiest, baggiest clothes I could find (usually from the boys’ department). I had a plain haircut, never wore make-up, and I stayed pretty quiet in most situations. I had a nagging suspicion that people assumed I was a lesbian, but the truth was that I secretly harbored intense crushes on nearly every guy who ever spoke to me. It was very unsatisfying and I spent a lot of time alone in my bedroom, writing in diaries and listening to music. The internet came to me at a perfect time. On-line, I was more than the sum of my physical parts. I was witty, funny, and kind-hearted. All the things that boys in high school seemed to look right past were the only things that counted on-line. I would show up to school each day completely deprived of sleep and counting down the hours until I could get back home and check my e-mail. I was addicted.

I engaged in plenty of conversations with guys on-line that never went anywhere. We’d instant message each other for an hour or two and then never talk again. But one night, a guy named Grant struck up a conversation with me in a Chat Room and we continued it on IM. He also lived in Tucson and never tried to hide the fact that he was much older (in his late 30’s if I remember correctly). He said he wasn’t interested in anything more than friendship and my instincts were naively calmed by that assertion. He owned a car repair shop and loved music. He said he’d played in some local bands and sometimes dyed his hair purple for fun. He was also a recovering alcoholic and claimed he’d been sober for about a year.

Grant asked me all about myself and seemed genuinely interested in everything I had to say. Being truly listened to by an adult is something a teenager always relishes, and I enjoyed the attention. He also led me to believe that I had some impact on his life and his sobriety. He emailed me throughout the day when he was feeling low and susceptible to drinking again. In turn, I’d send him positive messages of encouragement and he praised me for helping to keep him on the wagon. He often told me how special I was and how my wisdom was greater than my years. This gave me an ego boost the likes of which it had never known.    

Grant sent me pictures of himself a few times. He was tall and skinny with shoulder-length, dirty hair. His face was a bit haggard and corroborated his stories of a life of alcohol and drug abuse. An old picture disturbed me in a way the others didn’t: it was of Grant playing the piano after he’d gotten drunk and shaved off all his hair and his eyebrows. He thought it was funny, but I remember thinking that he looked like the bad guy in a movie.

One night, Grant IM’d me to say that he wanted to share another picture with me, but he wanted my permission to send it. (In retrospect, this was a very sleazy move.) He said he was a nudist and that he hardly ever wore clothes because he thought the human form was beautiful. He wanted to send me a picture of himself naked. At this point in my life, my physical contact with the opposite sex was limited to an innocent peck on the lips from the cute deaf boy who lived across the street when I was 10. (That story to come later.) I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was a bit curious. I agreed to let him send me the picture. A few seconds later I received an email with a picture attachment. I double-clicked on the file and watched as the photo slowly loaded, line by line, through our dial-up connection. As it loaded, Grant’s face, shoulders and bare chest all came in to view. He was standing in a backyard or some outdoor area. I realized that if I continued letting this picture load, I’d be seeing a man naked for the first time and something inside me knew this was wrong. This was not the way I wanted it to happen. Before the rest of the picture loaded, I closed the file. I told him that I wasn’t ready to see that yet, that I was too young and inexperienced to deal with that kind of thing. He apologized profusely and for days afterwards sent me emails saying how bad he felt about doing that to me. I didn’t think any harm had been done, so I forgave him and continued our communication.

A week or so later, Grant IM’d me and said that he wasn’t doing well. He said he’d been drinking that night and had broken his year of sobriety. He was very depressed and he needed a friend. He asked if I would meet him and just talk to him for a bit. I said I didn’t think it was a good idea, but he persisted and said that he was so lonely and he just needed someone to talk to for awhile. If I didn’t meet him, he was afraid he would drink more and do something stupid. I felt backed into a corner. He made me feel responsible for his well-being and at the age of 15, I didn’t know any better. I agreed to see him and told him to meet me around the corner from my parents’ house in 30 minutes.

I changed my clothes, brushed my hair, and told my dad that I was going for a walk. My parents normally had a pretty good sense when I was up to something, but I was quite a sneaky teenager and knew how to get away with certain things. Because I often took walks around our neighborhood at night, this wasn’t an unusual activity for me, so it seemed innocuous enough and Dad didn’t ask any questions. I walked down to where Grant was supposed to meet me and a few minutes later, he pulled up in an old BMW. He got out of his car and hugged me and I immediately smelled the alcohol on his breath. He sat on the hood of his car and held my hand and thanked me for meeting him. He told me over and over how beautiful I was and how I probably had to beat the guys off with a stick. He reiterated that he wasn’t interested in anything sexual, that I was safe with him. We couldn’t have been out there for more than 20 minutes and I don’t remember most of what was said. He seemed nervous, on-edge, especially when other cars would pass by. A storm was coming and lightning intermittently illuminated our faces in the dark. He cried a little as he handed me his 1 year sobriety chip from AA. He said that I should have it since I’d helped him stay sober for as long as he did. I didn’t know what to say so I told him his drinking that night was only a setback, that he could start again the next day. The whole thing felt so surreal.

He eventually said that he should take me home and that he would drive me. I was very hesitant to get in his car and to show him where I lived, but he persisted. It started to rain and he said that if I didn’t get in his car, we’d both get soaking wet. I had the feeling that even if I insisted on walking, he’d follow me anyway, so I got in and directed him to my house. I wondered what would happen if my parents saw me getting out of a strange car, but as we pulled up there was no indication inside that anyone had noticed us. Before I got out, Grant pulled me over and kissed me on the lips. It was quick and unexpected. His stubble scratched my face and the smell of alcohol was intense. I pulled away and sat there for a minute. Then I scrambled out of the car and ran inside. The house was quiet and dark. Everyone had retired to their rooms for the night.  

I got back on the computer later that night and Grant had already emailed me. He said he could still smell my lotion on his hands, that I was so beautiful and he couldn’t stop thinking of me. He apologized for having crossed the line, but again said he didn’t mean anything sexual by it. He just cherished me and my friendship and all the help I’d given him. He called me his “angel” and said I’d saved him.

The next day, I composed a brief but strongly worded email. I said that I was a 15 year-old girl and that I was not capable of saving anyone or being their “angel.” I told him I hoped he’d continue going to AA and making the choice to be sober, but that it was something he’d have to do on his own. I asked that he stop contacting me and that I no longer felt our relationship was appropriate. Grant responded that he knew I was right. He said that he was sorry for putting me through everything and that I deserved to be a carefree and happy young girl. He would respect my wishes and not contact me anymore, but he was still grateful for the support I’d given him.

And that was it. Honestly, I was prepared for him to contact me again, but he never did. Sometimes I looked through the blinds of my bedroom window to see if his car was sitting outside, but it never was. I pictured some Hollywood plotline where he’d stalk me and try to kill my entire family, but he didn’t. He left me alone to puzzle over the bizarre situation he’d created in my life. I even found myself worrying about him and his well-being. A year or so later, I was sitting in a coffee shop downtown and Grant walked by. I nearly got up and chased after him to say hello, but thankfully my better judgment kicked in. I kept his AA chip in my wallet for a long time as a reminder. Of what, I don’t know.  

It was a strange series of events in my life that never really had any closure. I was left with more questions than answers. If Grant truly was some sort of predator, wouldn’t things have progressed beyond a naked picture and a single kiss? Maybe he was just a lost and lonely soul and I’d stopped what could have turned into a terrible situation with that email I wrote him. Maybe I’d shaken an otherwise good person back to his senses by reminding him that I was just a child. Or maybe he moved on to an easier target and some other girl suffered a fate far worse than mine. I'll likely never know.  


  1. Thank you for sharing your very personal story. I am so proud of you for being so strong and assertive, even at the age of 15. Hopefully your sharing will help other young people see the potential danger (both emotionally and physically) that anonymous meet-ups can pose.

    Certainly, as you (and few others) know, I made my share of friends through questionable early-internet over sharing. I was lucky that none of the people who had my address (!!!) turned out the be creepers — or worse, criminals.

    We definitely grew up at a time before there were rules (for kids) about that kind of thing. A high school friend's mom just about tore my head off with "what were you thinking"s when she found out I met up with someone I knew from AOL. At the time I was embarrassed and a little resentful of her "butting in". Looking, Adult Me would have been far more upset with Young Me.

  2. Hi Jen! I guess you are right, it was a different time and we were all a bit naive as to the dangers of the internet. And yes, Adult Me looks back at Young Me and wants to smack her upside the head! It would be amazing if this story helps others avoid the same situation. We are both very lucky. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Mom pooped her pants a little when she read this.

  4. Oh no! I wasn't sure if I had shared this story with Mom and Dad before, but they let me know that this was definitely their first time hearing about it. It just wasn't something I ever talked about, you know? Still keeping them on their toes after all these years. :)