I remember meeting Maria in an AOL chatroom. I was maybe 14 or 15 years old. I never knew what she looked like. She lived somewhere in the States, the exact city I can’t recall now. And she had a mild form of cerebral palsy that made her mostly wheelchair-bound.
Every day after school, we exchanged messages and got to know each other. I remember Maria sharing with me a short story she had penned called “The Five Second Boy”, about a teenager with a terminal illness. Whether the story was part biographical I don't recall. But the story was so touching, so moving, so beautifully written that it nearly reduced me to tears. Though my old computer is long gone and the story long deleted, I still think about it to this day.
I eventually lost touch with Maria. I don’t know if her free trial had expired, or if she had simply got a new screenname. But there are times when I wonder about Maria today. Where is she now? Is she alive and healthy? Where does she work? Is she married? Does she have kids?
And so, too, I wonder about the others I’d chatted with on AOL and the fleeting connections I’d made. The guy I used to talk hockey with. The Sinhalese girl from Scarborough. The cute blonde from Markham. The girl I’d cybered with from Bakersfield, California.
For a timid teenager with growing pains, the internet was a new, mystical, wondrous world. Like most Tamil boys back then, I wasn’t allowed to talk to girls. The thought of talking to one on the home phone (pre-cell phones) or even inviting one over so mortified me that it never crossed my mind.
And so carrying on multiple friendly and flirty conversations - completely unbeknownst to my parents - lended a certain thrill because it was forbidden and illicit. My own form of teenage rebellion.
It was also a welcome reprieve from high school - a ruthless world where girls only talked to you if they liked your face or needed homework help, and ignored you or mocked you mercilessly otherwise. On this newfangled portal, you could be anything! All you had was text on a screen, and what you wrote mattered more than how you looked.
I like to think that I’m a more confident and self-assured adult today. But not all of us have the good fortune to blossom at an early age. And for many late bloomers, the pangs and scars of adolescence never leave.
For those of us in our late 20s and 30s, the evolution of the internet mirrored our own personal growth. From the dark ages of dial-up and chatrooms and personal homepages (Angelfire, Geocities) to ICQ and MSN Messenger, to forums like AsianAvenue and DesiPlanet, to blogs like Xanga and Wordpress, to YouTube and finally culminating in the domination of social media - MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat.
Some may call this corporatization and homogenization of the internet a devolution. Before the blatant clickbait of HuffPo and Vice, there were blogs of substance – many now discontinued, not updated in years.
With the internet now devolving to a form of “look at me” narcissism and social status one-upmanship (who has the most Likes? who has the most Followers?) at times I find myself longing nostalgically for those days.
It was a seemingly innocent time when creativity and substance mattered much more than image and flash. A nascent virtual world that, via the guise of anonymity, brought the world together - before Dateline NBC and monetization and smartphones and swipe apps and doxing and dick pics ended the party.
A part of me regrets that those days will never come back. Sadly, the 14 year old of today may never get to connect with a “Maria” from across the world. The confluence of factors that allowed for such a thing to happen is entirely an accident of history.
Yet we happened to be there – at the right place at the right time. And for those memories I am eternally grateful today.
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