Woe Was Me

(originally published 3/26/09 on my Posterous)

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I have only been in love once. I am talking about the kind of love that dazes your days and smacks you like a UFO sighting. Overpowering, crushing, kneedropping, how-did-this-happen-to-me love.

I met Dan through a 14.4 dialup modem in 1996. It was a challenge to access the World Wide Web in those days, let alone view anything that loaded in under five minutes. I had just been given a monstrous laptop from my new job, which accessorized perfectly with my lunchbox-sized cell phone. I began doing something called "surfing", which meant finding websites linked from others.

I suppose I was trapped in some pink link ring when I stumbled on Dan's Diary. Nowadays, just google "hamster in the ass" and a wiki will come up, explaining some fetish and its mistaken correlation to an actor with grey, feathered hair. Back then, if you were not linked, you were invisible.

As everyone knows, the internet was originally invented for scientists and lonely gay people. It was the shot- heard-round-the-world for men who had the brain of a scientist but abs of a pastry chef. It was also the most embarrassing place to meet someone romantically, thought of as a sewer where rats met and bred. Thousands of mid-nineties relationships were given false beginnings to the outside world. "We met in a bar, mom" was much easier to swallow than "we met in an AOL message forum about Vulcan roleplaying".

You must also understand that people used to genuinely work at the office. Ten minutes was never wasted on Britney' snatch or Scrabble battles with Betty From Duluth. It wasn't until my laptop arrived that I began wasting time on the clock. My modem was constantly dialing, trying to find a local number that would connect me to America Online's labyrinth of message boards. It was during one of these wasted office hours that I discovered Dan's Diary.

It was a seemingly simple site, which required hours of programming back then. The idea that somebody would regularly document their life was crazy. The webmasters of those days were regarded as gurus, pulling off something that any douchebag with a keyboard and WiFi can do today. The truth is, Dan's blogging preceded the term by ten years. He was a Woe Pioneer.

I read as many entries as I could in one work day, before packing the Black Monster into my bag and flying to Cincinnati for a business trip. I finished the final entries on an airport floor, dialed up through a newfangled port on a public pay phone. Technology was moving fast.

There is no understating what Dan's Diary did to me. It made me feel like there was someone else exactly like me (who wasn't Morrissey or Lou Barlow), a real person capable of breathing the same air that I breathed. He even liked my favorite band, a semi obscure shoegazing outfit called Spiritualized. I was thrilled.

I wrote the email to Dan all night long. I knew that it was a futile exercise; that I would never see a reply from someone who probably got dozens of emails per day (dozens was, like, a lot back then). The letter was the most honest thing I had ever written. It was the first true proclamation of my homo-whatever and one of the few times that I showed all of my cards. I confessed my huge high school crush, my deepest secrets and my favorite Mazzy Star song lyrics. I pushed send as soon as it was finished, for fear that I would lose my connection.

Then, nothing.

Then, something.

Two days later an email arrived. It was surprisingly long and began with a confession. Dan was not, in fact, writing the diary in real time. He was posting bits of his early 20's experience while now in his late 20's. It was more a memoir and less a diary. This did not phase me because he went on to write the best letter that I have ever read. It was like a songwriter telling me that I was the guy in his songs.

I walked around the East Village ninety times, re-reading the line-printed copy of his letter and trying to fathom my response. I had nobody to call because I was entirely in the closet, without a soul to talk to about the chemicals screaming through my brain. I was at the emotional level of a fourteen year old, having never had any feelings for the dozens of girls that I felt up and dumped. This was all frighteningly new.

I wrote back a letter that rivaled the length of something written by Tolstoy, unable to stop myself but sure that its length and contents would put Dan off me. My new letter, further pouring out my heart and pathetic feelings, might as well have come from the psych ward at Lennox Hill Hospital. If it was a Harry Potter howler, it would have screamed "I AM IN LOVE WITH YOU AND I DONT EVEN KNOW YOU."

Then nothing. Then something.

Lots of something. Hundreds of pages of letters flew back and forth over the next two months, often even slowing down the progress of the website, which angered many addicts of the diary. Dan regularly received letters from bereaved men in their sixties who were tired of watching Dallas re-runs and ignoring their wives. He confessed to me that many of these men offerred him money, plane tickets and promises...they felt like they knew him from the diary and were in love with him too. The thing was, my creepy love was requited.

We both changed our calling plans so that we could talk into the night. I would dial his nine digits into my plastic Connair touchtone, praying that my roommates could not hear my fluttered conversation. I would lay on my floor like a fifteen year old, twirling the cord between my fingers and toes.

The first call was the most terrifying thing I had ever done, besides fingerbanging the girls previously mentioned.

"This is weird".

"This is really weird".

"Are you breathing normally?"

"No."

"Me neither. I might have an embolism"

"Don't".

"Ok".

"What's an embolism?"

We were pushing the three month mark when one of us finally brought up the idea of meeting. He lived in Boston and I lived in New York, so the distance was surmountable enough if we were not so chicken shit.

Even a social retard now knows that you should move a relationship offline within a week. I was not even experienced enough to ask for a picture. Keep in mind, this was when a modem made a high pitched shrill upon dialup.

I was too scared to make the simple trip - our relationship was just too perfect. Any chance that it might deflate was just too scary to consider. So, we continued until I finally had to be in Boston for work, a couple more months later.

"I am going to be in Boston."

"My Boston?"

"Yeah, your Boston. The one at the end of the Mass Pike "

"Oh."

We were both witty on paper or after 2am. 11pm to 2am was not our strike zone.

"So, we should meet?"

"This is going to be a disaster."

"Challenger Level disaster".

"Exactly."

"We have to."

"I know."

Everything about the meeting was ill conceived, from the location to the plan. We were to meet in my room at The Park Plaza Hotel, an institution that was glorious in 1962 but, despite hanging onto it's prime real estate, could never quite maintain that original polish. It was where wives went to drink champagne and men went to hammer their secretaries.

From there, there was no plan. I was so nervous that I could not work out a proper first date. First, there was the (ludicrous) proposition that somebody should see us and learn of our homosexuality. Second, I had no idea where we could go and be comfortable picking up the dozens of conversation threads of the past five months.

Third. Oh god. This was happening.

I was pacing at seven, when he was supposed to arrive. I was frantic by 7:20. By 8:00, I was nearly throwing up, imagining that he had panicked and fled for home. I pondered running through Cambridge with a boom box overhead playing "Fade Into You".

Then a knock on the door.

I had told myself that I would not look at the keyhole but I did anyway. Imagine how many people have been inappropriately judged through a keyhole since its invention.

I opened the door to find the opposite of my dreams. Dan was, it seemed, human. His hair was thinning, his waist was expanding and his glasses were the size of icecaps. He looked twice as frightened as me, which put him at Defcon Five. I invited him in.

I was so busy being nervous that I could not even process how to handle things. Physically, this was not the man if my dreams. My mind was trying to catch up, to figure out if I could accept this substitute. Had I simply expected too much? Were the pages more important than the cover?

Anyone who tells you that the cover is unimportant is lying, or needs to drop forty pounds. The cover is what sells the book. Over the past few months I had read the forward, contents and the press quotes without seeing that it was bound with. I knew after seeing Dan in person that I could not purchase this volume.

He knew it before he even came into he room. Being older and a natural fatalist, he knew that it was going to be a tragic occasion. He had driven around for an hour stalling the inevitable but eventually swallowed and walked forward.

There we were, alone in the room, already weary by the seconds of anxiety. Neither of us could get out a full sentence.

"So what do."

"Not sure. Do we?"

"I guess stay or."

Maybe something just here. "

"In the room. Movie maybe. "

We payperviewed a thriller starring Gina Davis, when her career had promise and zing. We watched it sitting inches apart on the full-sized bed, both pretending to watch the movie and both doing the opposite. Our minds were racing, doing triage. Neither of our diagnosises seemed promising. This silent hemorrhaging continued for over two hours, at which point Gina Davis' career began its descent.

"That was horrible."

"She'll never recover."

"So, I should go. You think?"

"Yeah. I think."

"OK".

A walk to the door. A horribly confused moment. An exit.

Three days passed before we interacted again. The meeting was such a letdown that neither of us had recovered well. I came home and called in sick with what every New Yorker claims ails them (sushi food poisoning). I didn't listen to melodramatic music. I did not write in a journal. I did not drink or smoke too much. I just wallowed on the bed in my tiny bedroom, trying to figure out how everything could be fixed. I didn't want Dan out of my life - I just wanted the memory of The Park Plaza Hotel to be wiped from my brain. I wanted to go back to the way things were when I did not know what he looked like, or that our chemistry could be so disrupted. I wanted back my virtual reality.

It was never the same. Dan kept me at the center of his life, while I tried to be more absentminded about his existence. I used to crave his emails but now they plagued me. My guilt over this made me feel even worse. He called me out as I dodged him, which made me even more cagey and distant. His tone took that of a person losing love, yet I read it as that of a stalker. He became somebody who would not take no when it came to being in my life. I became a giant asshole.

So, it ended. I don't remember how. It may have been something quick after one of his long, confused emails. It may have been one of my brief letters with lines that were meant to be read through. Either way, I found ways to occupy The Space of Dan in my life, locking him into the part of my brain that stores confusion.

I still think about Dan all of the time. It happens at the best times, like when i discover a new band or read a new book. Or travel somewhere that he would never want to go because they don't have hamburgers. I smirk and laugh and have a moment. I imagine that he is there, comprehending.

Getting older frames things in ways that they were not intended to be hung. The time between Dan's Diary and now has negated the bad things and brightened the good ones. I can only remember how romantic it all was and am sure that I will never feel this way again, mostly because my innocence is now polluted to the point of toxicity.

I will feel this strongly about someone else, someday. But I worry that the marker has been set too high, if anything can ever achieve the intensity of Dan.

It's funny how two hours in a hotel room can completely fuck up your whole life.

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4 Responses to Woe Was Me

  1. I’m glad to see this again, Tom.

  2. Sean says:

    Terrific.

  3. eileen says:

    wow. I’m sure there’s a better-than-dan out there for you somewhere. But I have to admit that sadly, intensity kind of quiets down as we get a little older. It has for me, anyway. But maybe you’ll escape!

    thanks for writing this. It must have been exhausting!

  4. Keith says:

    I agree with Eileen, writing this must’ve been exhausting. Awesome story Tom. Maybe meeting at the hotel bar would’ve been a lot less traumatic.

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