When a relationship is confined to the Internet, intimacy can be a fleeting thing.
There is a point after every break-up, just as you’re about to hit send on an email to your ex, when the invisible hand of the relationship market (perhaps Dan Savage?) causes you to reconsider your actions. It is only then that it finally dawns on you that indeed the cliché is right: “He’s just not that into you.”
But what happens when your ex isn’t that into you because he actually doesn’t exist? How exactly do you move on from a relationship that was housed solely in the sterile confines of a Gmail inbox, as if that familiar red, yellow, green, and blue home page was some sort of Web 2.0 version of Giovanni’s Room?
My most recent break-up may in fact have little agency for a relationship classicist; not only did I never meet the guy, but it also appears that he was a concoction of the Internet, an ephemeral character made up for purposes unknown. As to why someone would concoct an elaborate gay online dating Ponzi scheme is one of the many quandaries of Internet dating, which allows supposedly rational human beings the opportunity to discuss child names without actually having sex.
When it comes to love and relationships, I’m a bit of neophyte. As a single 20-something gay man, I have developed the bad habit of rarely expressing my feelings with men that I sleep with. Admittedly, this is a bold stance for someone who would classify himself as a romantic, but after spending my early twenties in various states of heartbreak, I found that removing the emotional aspect of the sexual act became integral to the first and last lines of defending my heart from further ill will. Retrospectively, it has only been those instances involving emotional honesty that have led to relationship implosion; now, more then once bitten and twice shy, I’ve become rather aloof about the matter. At 28, sex seems mostly transactional in nature.
Rules are, of course, made to be broken, and every romantic does eventually need someone to pine over. It was at the urging of friends that I decided to try online dating, and I figured the cold confines of Internet anonymity would prove to be a safe-haven for my own emotional reticence. As a child of Hotmail, I admit that it is easier to type feelings out via emoticon then actually verbalize them.
And it was the internet that brought me the Pilot.
The Pilot and I started chatting a couple of days before Christmas, which was apparently only a day or two before his birthday. He worked and lived in Toronto but was heading home to Newfoundland to spend Christmas with his family. We talked for hours the first night and made plans to go on a date upon his return to the city. “I don’t sleep with people on the first date, and I don’t do short gaymances,” he warned. His candor was refreshing. All signs pointed to yes.
Based on our long chat I had gleaned that the Pilot was a solid East-Coaster with a family-oriented sense of values that meshed well with my own. I’ve yet to find many gay guys who will happily send you photos of them carrying their nephew, but good golly the Pilot did. Luckily it wasn’t all family values—he came with multiple uniforms for the inner fetishist in me; his closet contained both his pilot’s uniform, and with solid Scottish roots he had his own familial tartan. What more could a gay urban Jew want out of life, besides a cliffside kilted wedding? As a jaded big-city boy, this sweetheart Pilot was the antithesis to the realms of lawyers and bankers that I fraternized with, all of whose attitudes towards dating were nominal at best.
We traded emails back and forth over Christmas Break, talking mostly about mundane things. The Pilot was one of four C-named siblings, all of whom had gone to get matching tattoos when he, the youngest, turned 18. I thought this endearingly quaint. Also adorable was his unfinished barcode tattoo, waiting to be completed upon certain seminal lifecycle events (specifically, marriage and fatherhood).
He had me hook, line, and sinker when he described going to visit his grandma, who shared her hospital room with a young thirty-something woman who was dying of cancer and had no family in St John’s. “It makes you realize,” he emailed, “It’s important to find someone to take care of and take care of you.”
He was a pilot with a heart of gold.
A few days before we were due to meet—we had plans for frozen yoghurt, his favourite, even though it was the dead of winter—the Pilot emailed apologetically to cancel. There was a family tragedy; his older brother was in a coma, so he was staying in Newfoundland for the foreseeable future.
Figuring that “love” was in sickness and in health, I felt that the Pilot needed me and I would endeavor to be there for him as best I could, regardless of the fact that Toronto was thousands of kilometers away. Besides, what kind of cold-hearted bitch breaks up with someone during a time of family crisis? And truthfully, it felt good to be wanted and to be needed even if it was by someone who I’d never met.
Over the next few weeks we spent a lot of time together, and by together I mean chatting over MSN. The Pilot’s brother was married and had a young daughter, so the Pilot would often spend the night propped up in a chair at the hospital, his Blackberry providing a conduit to me. When I told him my friends called me Jono he suggested that he would prefer to call me Tithead. And thus we quickly had pet names for each other. He would later jokingly tell me that he had named the baby blue hospital-issue pillow Tithead too.
We continued to discuss the heavier things in life: desire for kids, ex-boyfriends, feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. One night he signed out after telling me he felt average when compared to his brother; I emailed him to tell him that he didn’t seem average and, besides, you should never say that to yourself. As a response he sent me a series of 1-word emails spelling out: I. Like. You. I would be lying if it hadn’t been a long time since I had woken up to someone telling me that, even if it was electronic.
Some nights the Pilot sent me copies of songs he played on guitar and I would listen to them as we chatted. When I asked him if he could sing anything by David Gray, he said no, but promised to teach himself so that he could perform for me upon his return to Toronto. I promised to make a big foam C for his next concert.
At one point the Pilot and I realized that his last name had a similar meaning to my middle name. And so, jokingly, he said that we already had a de-facto name for a son, if we were to go down that route. Retrospectively, I always took these conversations with a grain of salt, but they were also the kind of thoughts I myself would sometimes entertain when I would first start dating someone. In past experiences I would usually kept these thoughts to myself for fear of the other’s reaction. Yet with the Pilot there was no fear in raising tangents about long-term planning.
And then suddenly the Pilot vanished. No more emails. No more texts. Nothing. He never came online, he didn’t respond to my notes. And with the exception of all of the photos that creepily existed on my hard drive and MP3 files of his music, it was like he never existed.
That period of self-doubt started to creep in where the familiar thought tripped through my head: emotional honesty = bad.
Still, I wasn’t quite ready to let this one go. It all seemed too perfect to suddenly dispose of in an electronic trash bin.
I thought, obviously, that his brother had died. For a time I cruised the local obits bracing myself for the worst. I never found a death notice. This was probably for the best; as one friend noted—even if I knew what happened to the brother—how would that have helped? Would I fly out for the funeral and just appear in a pew and introduce myself to his parents as what? Life, I realized, isn’t like a gay version of a Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan movie; this was not Sleepless in St John’s.
It was only as I crafted the final “just checking in” email when reality dawned; or rather, reality reared its rude head by way of friendship intervention. As I told the entire story to a Newfie friend, he looked at me and said, “Honestly, I don’t think this person is real.”
“But I have photos.” Twelve shots of a man in a pilot uniform, others of the same person carrying a child, and others of a buff guy with his shirt off. I should mention at this point that the Pilot had big, beautiful biceps.
My friend was convinced. “I’m from St John’s. If there was a hot gay pilot, I would know him. Besides, it’s the Internet. People steal shit.” I realized he might be right.
I was now completely fascinated. Could the Pilot, my Pilot, be a complete sham? The songs, the tattoos, the brother’s accident, the heavily detailed family history—was all of it falsified? I felt violated, and I had to know the truth.
I scoured the photos for clues about location, anything that could point me to the guy in the photograph. I asked friends who grew up in St. John’s and who were the same age as the Pilot if they knew him. But when I showed them his picture no one recognized him. The Pilot had told me he played varsity soccer for Memorial University in St John’s, yet a friend of a friend who played soccer around the time the Pilot would have played didn’t recognize him either.
I investigated the situation further, finding myself on the phone with the registrar at Memorial trying to find out if someone by the same name as the Pilot had graduated there. Calls to various hospitals in Newfoundland would also turn up scant information.
The final nail on the truthiness of the Pilot’s story was realizing that all of the music he sent me was ripped off from someone else. The Pilot had sent me his warm-up set-list: a quick run-through of his ten favorite songs in five minutes. One evening, with trepidation, I typed his song list into Google awaiting the inevitable. Practically crying, I realized it wasn’t my Pilot singing, but an Ohio-born singer songwriter, who ironically enough is a fundamentalist Christian.
The Pilot was fake.
In some ways I wish there was a happy ending to this story—that cliffside wedding complete with tartan plaid. There isn’t.
I spent a day in bed lamenting the death of my fictional relationship. What had at first seemed so promising had gone down in flames. As my friend Karen succinctly noted, “Your perfect political husband turned out to be a total sociopath.”
It took a while longer to stop feeling embarrassed for myself. How could I have spent so much time in a relationship that didn’t, and wouldn’t ever, exist? The plans I had made in my head all seemed that much stupider when put into the context of a fictionalized person. And while a part of me recognized how outrageous it was to feel so let down, a part of me was also truly hurt. Hurt because I had been duped, but also because, once again, I had been dumped.
Over time, and with a bit of distance from the situation, I began to see a silver lining in the situation. For once it wasn’t emotional honesty that had derailed a relationship—if anything I had exploited yet another great relationship cliché: Dear Pilot, it’s not me—it’s you.
And as for the Pilot and Tithead—well, they’ll always have MSN.