It is 1:00 AM on a Friday night in 1991. I’m connected to Relay, one of the first chat systems on the Internet. There are around 100 people scattered among ten channels. Tonight there’s nobody I know on so I pick a channel with 8 people in it. That’s enough people that I can fade into the background if the conversation isn’t interesting, and not so many that I’ll get overwhelmed.
I sit back and watch. People are talking about the heavy metal bands they love. I’ll listen to Van Halen or Judas Priest, but I’m not a huge fan. These people are devoted fans. They know the guitarists, the lead singers and the lyrics – not just to the songs on the radio but all of them. But all my housemates are asleep and it’s lonely here so just watching a conversation is better than looking at a blank screen and listening to the fridge compressor turn on and off.
A person named Phantom comes in the room and out of nowhere, they’re asking a question:
“Does anyone here remember Free To Be You and Me?”
“Me! Me! I do!” I say.
I remember this – it was a popular feminist children’s album when I was in Grade One and I loved it. I remember the sound of the music for the title song but I really can’t remember the lyrics and it’s going to drive me crazy.
Nobody else is answering, though. There’s a heated debate going on as to who the current best metal guitarist is and everyone is piling on with their opinions. And then there’s a notification.
“Phantom has left the channel”
Dammit, they have the answer I need. I quickly type “/whois Phantom” and see that they’ve moved to channel 63 where there are ten people who are acting out a martial arts film – in text. There is nothing but “I kick you!” and “I kick you back!” over and over on the screen scrolling a mile a minute. I type in “Hey Phantom! I loved that album. Do you remember the lyrics to the theme song?” but it scrolls off screen almost as fast as it’s posted, buried in a swarm of kicks and punches.
I give up and go to channel 959, an unlisted channel and send an invitation to Phantom to join me. I’m going to find out the answer to this question or I won’t be able to sleep and in one minute, there they are.
“Hey, do you know the lyrics to the theme song?” I ask?
“Sure, give me your email address and I’ll send them to you.”
“So where are you from?”
“I’m in school in Missouri,” they say.
By 2:00 AM we’re talking about our dreams, by 3:00 AM our families, and by 4:00 AM we’re talking about our childhoods, sharing things I’d never told anyone. At 5:00 AM I realize that I really like this person. Then I have a strange realization. I don’t know this person’s gender. I’ve never been attracted to a man before and this is going to get pretty complicated if they’re a man but I guess I’ll have to explore that if it comes up. I get up the guts to ask them and find out that they’re a woman, Sage, age nineteen. Two years younger than I am.
At 6:30 AM, Sage sends a message saying “I need to go. The sun is coming up here.
“I wish we could go for coffee together but you’re over 1,000 miles away.”
“I wish we could too.”
“Good night – sleep well, sweet dreams.”
I am over the moon. I’ve met someone smart, funny, and kind. And she seems to like me. I am so excited I can barely fall asleep. Five hours later I wake up and immediately dial in to check my email. Sage has sent me an answer admitting that she didn’t know the lyrics to the song after all but wanted my email. She’s still there so we spend an hour chatting via rapid-fire emails.
Within days, we’re talking on the phone every day. The phone bill will be horrendous but I don’t even care. I’ll figure it out. Our calls sometimes last for up to four hours and by the end I’m nearly falling asleep. When I can stay up no later we sign off, “Good night, sleep well, sweet dreams.” and then hang up. I’m so exhausted that I start awake twenty minutes after falling asleep convinced I’d fallen asleep in the middle of the call.
On a call in October, we decide that things feel like they’re getting serious and we should meet as soon as possible. If we’re compatible it’ll be wonderful and if we’re not, well, we can minimize the pain and disappointment by dealing with it early. I acknowledge that idea because of course, it is possible, but I can’t imagine it ever being the case. Sage books a flight for Boston for Thanksgiving Weekend and we’re so excited. All of our emails now start with a countdown to the nearest minute as to when we will finally see one another.
The night before she is to leave, we are on the phone. “Meet me at the gate, wear your Depeche Mode t-shirt so I recognize you.”
The next day after I get out of work at 7:00 AM I go to my parents house to have breakfast with them and am back home at 10:00. The red light on the answering machine is slowly blinking. I press play.
“Hey Todd? This is Sage. My bus to the airport is really delayed and I think I’m going to miss my flight to Boston. Gotta go – the bus is leaving now. Not sure what I’m going to do.”
Now I’m worried. I’ve only been on a plane once before and don’t know what happens. If you miss your flight do you just have to pay for another? I’m sure Sage doesn’t have the money for another one. Heck, I’m not even sure she’ll be able to afford the ticket for the six hour bus ride home.
I pick up the phone and call United Airlines and speak to customer service, giving Sage’s name and flight number and they confirm the news. She didn’t make it in time for her flight but she’s booked for a later flight. She’ll arrive in Boston at midnight, almost six hours later than originally scheduled. I am so relieved. I go to sleep around noon, trying to get as much sleep as I can so I can be awake to make the two and a half hour trip to the airport to get her at midnight.
I wake at 5:00 and go downstairs to make my breakfast. My housemates are there starting their dinner, laughing and joking together. The phone rings and my housemate Jennifer picks it up. “It’s for you, Todd,” she says, handing it to me.
A very small voice on the other side of the phone says “Hey…it’s me. I’m at the airport.”
I laugh and say “Yes, I know!”
There’s a long pause and then Sage’s voice is even smaller.
“Are you going to pick me up?”
“Wait, what?! The airline told me you wouldn’t be in Boston until midnight! What’s your gate number?” I ask and then say a quick goodbye. I make the two and a half hour drive in two hours.
When I get there the terminal is closing. At the far end of the terminal with a small suitcase and bag is Sage. She looks just like her picture. The butterflies that were gently bouncing around my stomach on the drive here are now having a full on dance party. It’s really happening. We’re finally meeting! I call her name and she runs to me, hugging me tight.
“HEY!” she scolds, “You’re not wearing the Depeche Mode t-shirt! What if I couldn’t find you?”
I take her bag in one hand and her hand in another and we walk to the car. I’m so distracted by the fact that I’m able to talk with Sage live and in person that instead of leaving the parking lot, I wind up in the taxi queue surrounded on all sides by honking yellow cabs. Finally we make it to I-93 and the traffic thins. I take her hand in mine and kiss it. It doesn’t feel awkward and unsure like a first meeting, it feels comfortable as if we’ve been together for years and years.
“I’m glad you’re here.” I say.
The morning after she arrives, the ground is covered in snow. We walk hand in hand to the Four Aces Diner and eat pancakes with real maple syrup, thrilled to be able to speak for free and to have what feels like an ocean of time ahead of us. I show her everything I can – where I lived as a child, the “clubhouse” my friends and I would hang out in when we were twelve, the grocery store where I had my first job. I introduce her to my housemates and my best friend. But mostly we spend time together just talking. We barely sleep, not wanting to waste even a minute of our time together.
After three days we realize we don’t actually have oceans of time to spend. We have one more day. We spend this day on an emotional roller coaster. Much of the time we’re joking and belly laughing. Then, minutes later we’re both teary as we realize that we’ll be driving back to the airport the next day and won’t see each other for months or possibly even longer.
Finally we’re back home. My housemates are all gone for Thanksgiving at their families’ houses and it’s just us. We’re playing Depeche Mode’s “Somebody” and I ask her to dance. Neither of us got to dance at our high school dances being too shy and unpopular so for us it’s our first dance ever. I look down and Sage seems sad. I ask her what’s wrong.
“I don’t want to go tomorrow.” she says, starting to cry.
The solution is simple and comes out of my mouth without a second thought.
“I love you, Sage. You should just stay.”
“OK!” Sage says, beaming. I can’t stop smiling. I feel as if I’ve won the lottery, an Olympic gold medal, and the Nobel prize all at the same time. The woman I love has just said she’ll spend her life with me. In the space of five minutes, and with a single sentence the course of both our lives has changed permanently. No church, no ceremony, no gifts. No guests, flowers, or rehearsal dinners. We don’t even have a photographer, but that’s OK. A moment like this will never be forgotten.
Now the giant empty house seems too small to contain us. We put our coats on and get in the car with no destination in mind except to be as far as we can be from the airport – as if it might come and snatch Sage up in the morning if she gets too close. In my pocket I have fifteen dollars, a chequebook, and a credit card for gas.
We drive for three hours and at 1:00 AM we reach Maine. We get out and stand by the ocean holding hands and looking at the waves rolling in.
“I’m too tired to drive back and it’s too cold to sleep in the car.” I confess.
We need to find a place for the night. We stop at a motel but they won’t accept our personal cheque. The clerk makes a call to a local bed and breakfast and sends us there where they accept our cheque and tuck us into a comfy room where we fall instantly asleep.
The next morning we’re eating breakfast together in the dining room. The innkeeper comes over to give us more coffee and asks us how everything is.
“Great – but what time is it?”
“It’s 9:30 AM.”
Sage’s flight was for 9:00. It’s gone. The airport didn’t come get us after all.
Featured photo by Daegan Lunsford.