Click play below if you’d prefer to hear me tell this story, rather than reading it.
I’ll start this story by saying it probably doesn’t paint me in the best light. At least teenage me, when this story takes place. I’m a much better person now, I promise.
It was the summer of 1995. I was 15 years old and would do anything to avoid growing up. It was a glorious summer that year.
Like many of my friends, I spend a lot of time online, mostly on AOL, meeting strangers from around the country. This story is one particular stranger, but not one that I met online.
You see, back then, it was fairly common for me to exchange addresses with a girl I’d met online, so that we could be “pen pals”. Really, though, my ulterior motive was to get the girl to send me a picture of herself. You see, I was a shallow 15 year old back then. I promise I’m different now, I swear.
From when I started getting online in the late ’80s through the late ’90s, the concept of a digital camera was foreign. Even well into the ’90s, it was uncommon for someone to have a web cam or digital camera. So finding someone that had a “profile picture” was rare. Nowadays everyone has a photo and carries a camera with them in their pocket almost all day every day. In 1995 it was far less common.
By exchanging addresses with these girls, I could get them to write me a letter or two and send a picture. I’d return the favor and we’d be pen pals for a few months and that’d be that. Sometimes we kept in touch. Sometimes I threw the letter and photo away when it first arrived.
Many times there’d be a few letters back and forth before a photo would arrive, citing “waiting for school pictures” or the like. I ran this scam for many years and was an expert.
I know what you’re thinking, I do: “weren’t you worried someone would kill you?” No, not at all. This was still early enough on the internet that the crazies hadn’t realized how easy prey people were yet. It was fairly “safe” to share that sort of information online. I must have given out my home address 50 times and never had anyone show up uninvited.
This, however, isn’t the story of one of these girls. You see, this girl the story’s about is a unique breed of person. Now that you’ve got the back story, let’s begin.
At some point in my online trysts, I sent a letter to a girl named Olivia. I don’t remember much about her, aside from that she lived in Connecticut. I don’t remember ever getting a letter back, what her screenname was, or when I’d talked to her. It was almost as if she was made up.
A few months later I got a letter in the mail from Connecticut. Uncasville, to be exact. The location that would (the next year) become the home to Mohegan Sun. The letter was from a girl named — let’s not use her real name here, in case she ever stumbles on this — Mary. (It rhymes with Mary, if you’re curious.)
In her letter, Mary told me about how she read the letter I’d sent to Olivia — which, again, I don’t recall and didn’t recall even when I’d gotten Mary’s letter — and she just had to write to me. Something about my letter intrigued her and she wanted to get to know me. So she, like a completely sane and not at all weird person, wrote to me.
I wasn’t one to judge a book by its cover (yes, I was), so I wrote back.
Over the next few months, we wrote back and forth a bunch of times. Every time I asked for a picture, I was put off citing that there were none, or we had to wait for school to start for class pictures, or something equally as avoiding. I didn’t think anything of it. I liked what she had to say and she seemed to like what I said, too. It worked out pretty well that way.
At one point we had a quick phone conversation, just to chat. Though long distance actually cost money back then, so we kept it short. She sounded nice, had a pretty voice and we seemed to click.
A few weeks later, she sent me a letter saying that her dad had to come up to Massachusetts for business, and asked if I wanted to meet. It was a little scary, being the first time I’d actually meet anyone from online — well, sort of from online. Regardless, I agreed and we set the date in our respective calendars. (That’s a figure of speech, I don’t think either of us actually had a calendar.)
I called my best friend Dan and asked him to come over, just in case. After much hemming and hawing, it turned out that he couldn’t make it. The girl he was dating at the time, Sue, had something she needed his help with, so he had to do that instead.
When the day finally came, I remember sitting in the front room at my Mom’s house, waiting. Staring down at the end of the driveway as if a nuclear bomb was going to hit and kill everyone. As if the ice cream man could come by at any time throwing freebies out the window. I watched intently and waited. I had no idea how far away Uncasville was. There was no Google Maps, there was no Apple Maps, I don’t even think there was a Mapquest at that time. I just sat and waited while they drove the two hours up to Tewksbury.
I heard the rumble coming from around the corner. You see, my Mom’s house is set at the back of the neighborhood, a mostly quiet street and hardly any cars ever drive by the house. So when I heard the rumble, I knew it was her coming.
A full sized passenger van pulled up to the end of the driveway, but not into it. The door opened, and out she hopped.
I immediately picked up the phone and called Dan.
“You have to come here,” I said, “I don’t care what happens with Sue. You have to get over here right now.”
I then explained to him what I saw coming up my driveway. I described Mary as best I could without letting her see me in the window.
He hung up and was on his way over in a matter of minutes, his Mom dropping him off to somehow help me deal with the situation. Thankfully he only lived a few minutes away and he was there pretty fast.
Mary had described herself as, if memory serves, five foot two, a hundred and five pounds, with long blonde hair and blue eyes. Sounds nice, right? Fifteen year old me was pretty stoked that she sounded like a hottie and was interesting and smart.
What was walking up the driveway was anything but what Mary described herself to look like. She was, ultimately, 5’2″, I don’t deny that. The sun reflected in my eyes many times off her vibrant brighter-than-the-Wendy’s-girl red hair, almost as if it were a direct mirror from the surface of the sun into my eye sockets.
Either she was more color blind than I am, or she dressed herself in the dark. The pinks and purples and blues and reds just seem to be screaming at me through the window. They yelled at me to run for my life, to hide in the closet or pretend I wasn’t home. They begged of me to save myself.
I was never a good judge of someone’s weight. I don’t want to say that she was fat, because that’d be insensitive. That’d be rude, in fact. But 15 year old me, at the time, thought she was the size of a bus. In retrospect, she probably wasn’t that big, I just couldn’t get past the hair and the clothes. They were both electric.
I called upstairs to my Mom, who was home and making a nice dinner for everyone.
“Dan’s coming over,” I yelled. “She’s here.”
I don’t know if she looked out the window and saw what I saw. I don’t know if it was the tone of my voice. I don’t know what it was, but when she called back, all she said was “Be nice, Michael.”
And be nice I was. I tried. I did my best. I swear. I was as nice as I could be, being that disappointed.
I remember, vividly, opening the door and introducing myself. She came inside, full of wonderment, amazed at the kitchen for some reason. My Mom introduced herself when she came down, and Dan showed up shortly thereafter, to save me.
I don’t remember what we did initially, but we sat down to eat shortly after she arrived. I think I’m remembering that it was early afternoon, though I could be mistaken on the time. The whole day was a blur, and nearly twenty years ago, so there’s a good chance some of this isn’t perfectly factual.
After we ate, I recall going up to my room. Dan and I did, anyway. Mary stayed downstairs to help my Mom clean up. Which at the time seemed weird, but now seems like it was a polite thing to do.
I logged online and chatted with some folks while Dan drew on the wall behind my door. I can still picture the demon that he drew. The horns flying out of its head, extending towards the sky, the eyes staring into my soul. He wrote “Mary” below it, and I quickly made him erase it for fear she’d see it.
By the time she came up to my room, I was already over the whole experience. I wasn’t interested in getting to know her, I felt betrayed and mislead. I felt like I was the victim of some great fraud. All I wanted to do was kill whatever little time we had left before her Dad came back to get her.
I honestly don’t remember what we did, or how that time passed or how many hours it was. It’s all a blur of Dan and I making inside jokes about this or that.
I remember her leaving. I remember her telling me how great it was to meet me and that she’d call me when she got back home, so I’d know she was safe.
She did. I made sure I wasn’t home that night, though. Dan and I walked up to the mall down the street and hung out at Papa Gino’s until they closed.
She sent me a letter after we met, reminding me how nice it was to meet me. How much fun she had and how she wanted me to thank my Mom for the meal she’d prepared. I never responded.
About a month later, she called me. School had started up and she wanted me to attend her Homecoming dance with her.
“I’ve told everyone here all about you and they can’t wait to meet you,” she said.
She told me all about how the marching band — of which she was a member — would be performing, but that I could hang out with her friends while she did that.
The whole thing was essentially planned. All I had to do was say yes.
It was, if I recall correctly, the first time in my life that I used the “I have plans that night” excuse. Though, like out of a bad sitcom, she never told me what the date was.
I quickly tried to recover from it. I stumbled and fumbled and pretended that she’d told me the date already. I tried to cover my own ass, but it was too late.
“Well, when is it?” I asked.
She told me, and I told her I’d let her know. I’d look at what I was doing that day and call her back to let her know.
I never checked. I never called her back. I never spoke to or heard from her again.
What’s really odd is that I went on to meet dozens — if not hundreds — of other people from online in the subsequent years. It was much easier once I was driving and I drove all over to meet not just girls, but guys that I’d made friends with on AOL and other online services. The odd part is that the meeting with Mary didn’t turn me off from wanting to do that. It didn’t push me away from wanting to meet new people.
It certainly left some memories and gave me a gauge by which to judge all others I met online since then. That’s something I won’t ever forget.