The Wretched Ones: Love in the Time of AIM
by Rebecca van Laer
In 2001, I was superbunni; as superbunni, I fell in love twice.
It was the early days of the internet: I had a LiveJournal under the same moniker, as well as a DeadJournal, and a profile on punkdate.com, a long lost early-internet precursor to OkCupid for teens who shopped at Hot Topic. On each site, I had carefully curated my list of favorite bands: The Vibrators, The Violators, X-Ray Spex, Banner of Hope, Blatz. I’d discovered these bands online, and then spent hours waiting for Napster to load their four-chord songs, their angry lovely voices.
I lived in the tiny town of Griffin, Georgia. The Waking Dead is filmed there now in its abandoned strip malls and on its dry red hills. Fifteen years ago, I wandered those same strip malls, buying Dickies and shade after shade of Manic Panic at Sally’s Beauty Supply.
I was a sad and lonely teenager, much like many others. I found punk as an outlet as I browsed the web. One day in middle school, I was learning the dance to “Oops I Did It Again” on Sisquo’s Shakedown; the next, I met a boy named Steve in a chatroom on AOL. Had I run across a guy who liked Belle & Sebastian, my whole life might’ve looked different. But in 2002, the Internet was a much stranger place that it is now, and that is not where it led me.
Steve was in a band. They had a geocities website in bright light blue and green, and there was one grainy picture of Steve playing the drums. I told him I was sixteen, and pretended to know all the bands he did. NoFX, Anti-Flag, Rancid. I found their CDs at the mall, and I added them to my interests on LiveJournal. And from there, superbunni began to shift and change. I clicked on the profiles of girls who liked these bands and others. I followed them; I studied their 100×100 pixel profile pictures. I looked at websites that had nothing but pictures of punk hair, dragged and dropped to sit against black backgrounds.
As my research progressed, I got into a more obscure set of bands. I left Steve in the past; I dyed my bangs pink. Although I wore a pair of little purple wire-rimmed glasses in order to see the board at school, I put them in the bag when I went to the mall or the thrift stores downtown.
I had grown up in chat rooms answering a/s/l? I wrote strings of lies, created persona after persona by myself and at slumber parties. Steve had always wanted to see a picture of me, and I knew how disappointed he would’ve been in the little girl staring back at him. But by 2001, I was finally ready to be myself—online, at least.
With so much practice, I’d grown adept at shaping a virtual self. As I spent hours and hours in my parents’ office logged onto AOL, the boundaries between that self and whatever was real were increasingly blurry. I sent mixtapes to my LiveJournal friends; I learned from the lives of girls named Devika and Ali who lived in New York and had beautiful shiny spiky hair. Soon, they followed me too; they read my thoughts and knew about my life and had opinions about every step I took. I ordered clothes that looked like theirs from Angry Young & Poor (which improbably enough is still in business); I went to Little Five Points in Atlanta and bought a studded belt. I waited for opportunities to wear these clothes, to make my life look like theirs offline, too.
My best friend Anneka and I were about to start high school. The bands at the Warped Tour were lame, we thought, but there was nowhere else in Georgia that promised to be quite so full of girls and boys who looked like the ones we’d met online. Our dads chaperoned us, but granted us some degree of freedom: they read in the parents’ tent while we wandered under the sun.
Anneka wore a Casualties shirt and her characteristic long braid. I wore a union jack tank along with wool plaid pants, an impractical choice for Georgia in July. I had drawn on cat-eyes, and with my glasses in my bag, I could barely see.
I people-watched as best I could. We walked from stage to stage, we sweated. Like all teenagers, we wanted to be noticed.
I saw a boy with bleached, gravity-defying hair, and I squinted to see him better. He was heading in our direction. He complimented Anneka on her shirt, and seemed to want to talk—but we were both too shy. This was a frequent occurrence: at the mall, we saw some of the same boys over and over again, and giggled as they passed. But when one of them came over, we clammed up.
This boy took his leave of us quickly, and went back to his friends. We saw him again a few hours later, his face bloody from falling or dancing or a fist. My heart fluttered. I wrote about him in my LiveJournal: spiky-haired boy.
In the next few weeks, the texture of my life changed dramatically.
First, I logged onto punkdate.com to find a message. The profile picture did not show a face, but did show a head of spiky hair I was convinced I recognized. Feeling sick and excited, I replied to him and asked if he’d been at the Warped Tour. And then I waited for him to log in and respond. I wrote in my LiveJournal, Is it him? Wound up, I decided to walk the mile along suburban roads over to Anneka’s house.
On my walk, a second thing happened: an old, beat-up brown sedan covered in dozens of bumper stickers emblazoned with anarchy signs and black and white text drove by me. Its driver honked.
Who was driving the car? Someone who was old enough to drive, someone who had noticed my pink hair. I was immediately sure that this someone was a he—and I hadn’t known there was anyone like him in Griffin. Anneka was my only flesh-and-blood friend aside from a few girls from soccer who thought I was weird now. What wonders would high school hold?
When I arrived at Anneka’s house and we went down to the basement to log onto the computer and go through my messages, I shared both revelations with her. The heat swelled in my chest and in my head.
A third occurrence: my dad moved away. My parents had been separated, then divorced. Now he was moving once and for all to New York, and I wouldn’t spend weekends and holidays in his house out in the country. I was sad. But August was so heady, I hurtled forward with more hope than fear.
The boy with spiky hair went by johnnyagnostic on AIM and on LiveJournal. His real name was Daniel. We started messaging, and soon, we realized we had met each other. Having a zitty face to tie to the name superbunni didn’t put him off at all. He added me on LiveJournal before I had a chance to delete the entries I wrote about him. Soon, he was writing entries about me too. My friends started to follow him.
Our flirtation became semi-public. My friends real and virtual could watch a budding romance. With this tiny audience in mind, I performed my crush. The boy and I talked for an hour today. My heart feels full. Squee. I checked his journal with a disturbing frequency I wouldn’t reach again until I was waiting to hear about college acceptances years later.
I learned all about him over AIM: that his parents didn’t understand the punk rock thing, and put pressure on him to do better in school. He was sixteen, and a virgin, although he’d once received a blowjob from his ex-girlfriend in the dressing room at the mall. He was ashamed of this (he said), and he didn’t want me to feel bad that I was so much less experienced—I’d never even been kissed.
I didn’t think of him as Daniel, but as johnnyagnostic, the boy with spiky hair. And really, just the boy.
We started to talk on the phone, and eventually, we made plans to meet.
Our parents didn’t seem especially worried about the prospect of their teens dating strangers from the internet. My mother talked to his parents, and vice versa. Then, he took the MARTA down from Gwinnet County to the Atlanta airport, where we picked him up and drove the 45 minutes south to Griffin.
I rode nervously next to him in the car. His hair was not done up in spikes. He had a ruddy, shiny face—one I hadn’t really seen since the Warped Tour. This was him: this was my first boyfriend. And, although we had talked for hours and hours on AIM, I was shy looking at him; shy to know he was looking at me. Was I a surprise to him, too?
I took him to the Spalding County Fair. Did we go on rides? Was I nauseous from them, and the popcorn, and the fireflies? I don’t remember the details, but I know we didn’t kiss that night. We held hands and walked under the starry sky and I felt like maybe he liked me in real life, too.
Before the end of the night, he gave me a handwritten letter that I lost long ago. We made our feelings known through words, exchanged in private and in public, over and over again. Our prose was shaky and filled with early-web irregularities and acronyms (TTFN, le sigh), but I know that letter set my heart on fire.
He spent the night at my house and I spent the night at Anneka’s. I doubt I slept at all.
I started high school.
There in the lunchroom was another boy with bleached and spiky hair. He stood with two friends: a pretty girl with a few streaks in her hair, and another boy. What I had been hoping for, and dreading.
I knew how to write my way into friendships and into love. But I didn’t know how to walk up and start talking to any of these people.
They were bound to notice me with my pink bangs and ripped jeans; worse, they’d see me in the lunchroom on days when I didn’t have anything to wear but my old Abercrombies. A horrible thought: I would have to talk to them. Then, another, more horrible: maybe they wouldn’t want to talk to me.
I wrote and wrote about this, trying to hide my dread while working through it: it consumed my thoughts much more than geology, English, geometry.
I had some solace, though. Anneka and I were making new friends; at lunch, we sat with as many as six other teenage weirdos. Several short, semi-pubescent guys, and one girl, Mary Catherine. We’d played soccer together, but she’d gone to Catholic School for the past eight years. Now, she was sort of goth, and suddenly, my other best friend.
Mary Catherine started dating one of the lunch table boys, and he told her all about the older punks: they were friends with his sister. I learned their names; I learned whom was dating whom. I learned that the boy with the bleached hair had been driving that beat-up car.
One day after school, a message popped up on AIM. The username: thewretchedx1x. Are you the girl with pink bangs? Yes. Who are you? I’ve seen you around school, I honked at you once.
I already knew his name was Josh; now I knew his screenname, too.
He lived on the other side of the woods in my back yard. He was seventeen. He had two younger siblings, could I babysit them sometime?
He told me that I liked too many British bands, and encouraged me to learn more about American punk, Southern punk. He said he’d come by and see my records sometime.
The next day in school, I thought I saw him wink at me, but that was it.
At first, I told Daniel everything about Josh. Then I realized he was jealous.
I was incredulous—I loved Daniel. Our paths had converged so serendipitously. He leapt seemingly out of the fabric of my dreams and into my blurry field of vision at the Warped Tour, and then all the more improbably emerged again in the spaces where I felt most comfortable, the fields of text and pixels where I could shape my responses carefully, my chest flushed red.
Soon after he visited Griffin, I took the trip via car and train to his parents’ house, where we had our first kiss on a playground. My first kiss. And then he taught me how to open my mouth, how to use my tongue against his. We spent hours laying on the couch at his house, my house, with our bodies pressed close while we watched movies and got familiar with each other’s warmth and scent.
I told him I loved him. I wouldn’t leave our perfect, ongoing public romance to date a guy who lived in Griffin—even if that guy were interested in me, which I knew he wouldn’t ever be.
I talked to Anneka and Mary Catherine at school; I told them what Daniel and Josh had said online the night before. And then I rode home on the bus, eager to walk to the front door and run up the stairs and wait for the whir of the modem and the clicks and buzzes of the connection and the dings of AIM.
One day, Josh asked to come over.
He came; he went into my room and sat on the bed. My bed was covered with floral pink and white blankets and pillows that looked incongruously girly before a wall of record sleeves pinned up with tacks. He didn’t laugh. We listened to my records, and then he went to smoke on the back porch.
When he came inside, he looked through the cabinet of liqueurs as I protested, getting more and more upset. He put them back, we walked upstairs, he grabbed the guitar my dad had left behind for me in case I ever learned. He began to play.
In my memory, he sang, too. But I may just be remembering the swell of my own vocal cords. The wretched one, singing to me.
He left his beanie in my room. As a gift? An accident? Either way, I wore it the next weekend when I took a plane to New York where it was crisp and cool. The hat smelled like Murray’s pomade. I thought of this, I thought of Daniel, and I was glad to be offline all weekend at my dad’s, where I didn’t have my own computer.
Daniel had perhaps been right to be jealous; my feelings were changing. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him anymore—but my circle had widened beyond my computer screen. I felt more for more people.
Anneka, Mary Catherine, and the boys became my first clique; we hung out at Anneka’s house or at mine and watched movies and laughed.
We still weren’t friends with the older kids, and Josh still didn’t talk to me at school. He told Mary Catherine’s boyfriend that I’d be smoking hot when my acne cleared up. I felt crushed when I heard this secondhand, but in some way also believed it to be true. I didn’t think I’d ever be hot, or pretty. I was smart; I liked to read and write. And I’d dyed my hair pink. Wasn’t that enough?
For Daniel, it had been, but I was letting him down. He posted about his view of things: he was afraid I’d break up with him the minute I found a boyfriend in Griffin. I wasn’t online enough; I wasn’t calling him.
I logged in and read this and felt guilt and anger. How could he think this? How could he post it for everyone to read?
Daniel thought I was simply giving in to teenage lust—the promise of a nearby boyfriend meant more flesh and blood encounters, more. This wasn’t exactly right. I preferred what I had with Daniel: an ebb and flow of words; a deep knowledge of each other that came from writing to and with each other for months. It sounds a little Victorian, but with our occasional meetups and make outs, it was romantic.
With Josh, I had some of that: we got to know each other online, too. I waited for him to log on; when he had an away message up, I hovered over it, reading it again and again. But the real difference was that the way he was offline was so damn compelling. To know that someone like him wanted to chat with me was entirely different. I felt that way about him for years to come, and I know others did, too. Years later, in college, I picked up an issue of Vice and found a CD with one of his band’s tracks. I went to their website; I watched their videos, I heard him play guitar and sing, and there it all was again.
For my birthday that year, Josh took me along with some of his friends to a Slaughter and the Dogs show in Atlanta. No one else my age was invited; there wasn’t enough room in the car. This was my first time hanging out with them, and I was terrified.
Daniel met us there, his hair done up in spikes. We arrived so late that he seemed angry when he saw me. And then he met Josh. Josh acted more like an older brother than a potential beau, from my perspective, at least. He laughed at Daniel’s hair and his attempts to hold my hand. And then, after just a few songs, he was ready to leave.
Uncomfortable, I was happy to leave, too—to get into the car and drive back with the windows down.
While driving, Josh asked his friend in the passenger seat to grab the steering wheel. Then, he began to climb out the window. I’m a teen wolf, he shouted. He howled. I laughed in fear and in reckless joy.
Daniel and I broke up.
I wrote about it in detail; I said I was devastated. That’s what the people want to hear about teenage romance, isn’t it?
And I was devastated, but I also had my crush. My crushing crush.
I wrote about Josh just a little—as if he were a casual friend. I didn’t want my virtual friends to know that what Daniel said was true. And I didn’t want to invest myself too much, to make my love not just a feeling but a story I’d start to live in.
This little, though, was just enough to get me into trouble.
Soon I would learn that my LiveJournal was not as private as I thought it was. People were reading it: other kids at school; Josh’s girlfriend, who I hadn’t known existed. And perhaps Josh himself.
She left a comment calling me a skank and threatening to beat me up if I kept trying to steal him. I was afraid, but also flattered—that she saw me as a threat gave my feelings that much more credibility.
I made my LiveJournal private after that. I had already learned that what I wrote on the internet was something that could shape my real life—Daniel had encountered me through words long before he encountered me in person. It hadn’t occurred to me, though, that someone could pour over a year of posts and come to know me without ever messaging me, without my ever knowing. I didn’t know that anyone would read without enjoyment, scouring for evidence that I was awful.
I didn’t know, yet, that each of our spectral, virtual selves opens the possibility not only for love, but also for judgment. And I didn’t know that writing always means taking the risk of being hated.
A few months later, I moved away from Georgia—in with my dad in New York. Josh and I had never so much as kissed. He called and left me with a piece of gross advice that I’ll never get out of my head: “Don’t let any Yankees fiddle with your peach pie.” Daniel didn’t call, but he told me on AIM that I shouldn’t feel lonely and bereft of all my friends, but glad for the possibility to get out of that small town and that small life.
I saw Josh a few times over the years, but his fascination with me seemed to have disappeared when I left Griffin. He couldn’t read my private LiveJournal. He no longer saw his image reflected back to him through my vague, adoring prose. It felt like he was never on AIM again. Daniel was hardly online, either. He escaped, too: he started hopping trains and squatting. I saw him once a year later in New York, and then never again.
In 2001, I chaffed at the idea that pink bangs and angry bands were temporary passions, something I’d grow out of. I saw Anneka a year ago, and when she found out I’d been teaching yoga, she thought I was kidding. “Whatever happened to being punk?” She asked me. I told her that yoga is just like punk: you’re your own higher authority. While I still believe that to be more-or-less true, it’s also true that becoming punk was a kind of practice for a pastime I have yet to outgrow: researching, writing, seeking out how I might be and what I might believe amongst so many lines of floating text, so many pixels, so much blue light pouring across my face.
Rebecca van Laer is a writer, editor, and educator currently based in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Salamander, Prodigal, Hobart, The Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and at Brown University’s pre-college program for high school students, and she is currently a Writing Consultant at Baruch College. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Brown University, where she studied queer and feminist autobiography.