I have a long history of assuming the internet can insulate me from rejection.
When Facebook first became ubiquitous around my sophomore year of high school, back when everyone AOL Instant Messenger was a primary mode of after-school communication, it looked like my way out of Loser Hell. I was a woman of words, even in 2005, but terrible at communicating face-to-face. The people I most wanted to connect with were the ones who scared me the most: the cool people, the ones who appeared so friendly within the confines of my private Christian school, but the ones who were so obviously out of my league. The screen of my desktop computer made me feel more confident. With those few extra seconds to think, I knew I could come up with something witty to say. With the computer as mediator, I knew I could woo anyone—especially people I was too shy to approach in person.
But the internet wasn’t always anonymous, and my lack of a reputation was still at stake. I used to wait hours for the boy I liked, a popular, attractive senior, to log on, only to be disappointed when he logged off before I could get up the courage to say something as simple as “hi.” I was the queen of desperation, yet terrified to seem desperate. So I held back, making mental lists of clever things to say that quickly became irrelevant when I never got up the guts to say them. I would whine to my girlfriends, who invariably told me to go for it, to be honest. In their defense, I was making myself miserable, and driving them insane. They knew that nothing would ever happen if I never spoke up.
The one time I really put myself out there, it backfired terribly. After months of chickening out, I finally started IMing with the popular senior, who was reasonably accommodating, if entirely disinterested. I refused to let this deter me. I needed to make a move, so, in lieu of words, I made him a mix CD. I took pride in learning his favorite bands from Facebook, and then I found songs whose meaning I twisted to suit my purposes. Then I stuck the CD in his locker, anonymously.
That night, he confronted me online. I’m not sure how he guessed that I was the girl who made the mix. Maybe someone saw me slipping it into his locker, or maybe he just had an inkling that I had feelings for him. At that point, we must’ve talked online enough for him to recognize my huge crush. He confronted me, and there was that blinking cursor in the chat window, begging me to confess. It took me ages to type out the simple statement that I had feelings for him, and only seconds for him to reply that he didn’t feel the same way. Maybe he said he had a girlfriend, which was true. What he should have said is that we didn’t even know each other.
After that we never spoke again, although every time I passed him in the halls my stomach flipped over on itself. My crush never quite faded, even after he graduated. Maybe I was bored, maybe I just liked the pain, maybe I was crazy. I suppose in the ten years since, it’s all hilarious. He was one of those guys destined to marry his high school girlfriend and get a 9-5 job making six figures without ever leaving town—and I wasn’t. It’s easy to write it off as a silly school girl crush, one of many I had in my lifetime. And it was a silly crush, but I think it’s symptomatic of something bigger.
All through high school, I was struggling between my desire to be seen for who I really was and my fear of the exact same thing. I didn’t fit in “IRL” and so, like many of my generation, I hid behind the computer screen, where I could better express myself, where I wrongly felt safe from rejection. The illusion of safety is what prompted me to confess my attraction to someone who was so out of my league he was playing a whole different game in high school. My false sense of knowing him as a result of practically memorizing his Facebook profile is what convinced me that all I needed was a safe space to express myself without the barrier of my fear and social awkwardness. But I wasn’t safe: by the time he graduated, he’d told his friends about my crush on him—one of whom was my best friend’s older brother. And I didn’t know him either; maybe if I had, I would’ve realized he was actually far less interesting than me.
I never quite recovered from the sting of that internet rejection, as silly as the whole thing was. For the next two years, I was even more petrified to approach anyone—whether it was a boy I liked, or someone I just genuinely thought was cool. I wasted months crushing on a guy with whom I actually had common interests, but I was too petrified to start the most basic of conversations with him. I wasted the three years after that with someone who never deserved my attention in the first place—because he was the only one who actually saw me.
This is not to say that I’m a miserable person, or that the sexy senior I was crushing on ruined me forever. If it wasn’t him, it would’ve been someone else—and after him, it was someone else. It’s not as if this was the only case of the internet letting me down either. Rather, the experience trained me in silence, in sitting back and watching other people’s lives happen, wanting to be a part of them but not knowing how. My silence stayed with me into college, leaving me with a Facebook friends list of people I was too scared to ever get to know, despite how much I desperately wanted that connection. I moved away from New York City in part because, after two years, I still didn’t know how to converse with people while sober.When I’m nervous in public, I clutch my phone, pretending I’m getting a slew of interesting notifications, as if there’s something cool in being detached from reality and attached to a device. I am still petrified of phone calls and do most of my communication via text, where I can carefully construct how I want to be perceived.
I don’t want to be silent anymore. I don’t want to be ashamed of the intensity of my feelings, the clarity with which these memories have stayed with me over all these years. I want to speak the truth as I see it, even if I can only do that from behind a screen. As Erica Jong put it in one of my all-time favorite books, Fear of Flying, “how can I know what I think unless I see what I write?”