I like the internet. The internet has helped me with a great many things. But it can also be a curse if you’re not careful. Take it from this writer.
Many years ago I was at my computer debating what to do. I could do any number of things. I could search for information pertaining to major literary figures I’d always wanted to know about. I could look up recipes for chicken marsala. I could even turn the computer off and go outside. It was a nice day.
Instead I did something terrible. Something unconscionable. Something silly. Something that just all around wasn’t a good idea.
I checked my ex-girlfriend’s email account.
It’s laughable, you might say. That’s all? What’s the big deal?
It was more than a big deal. It was the lynchpin that’s led me to this point. If it’s true that the internet is all about making the private public, then I had done just that with a few keystrokes. Or rather I could do that – make her private our public.
For there it was: her accumulated life on screen before me. The messages she’d sent and received, names with which I was and was not familiar, the information I wasn’t supposed to know.
Why had I done this? What was I hoping to find? Of course I was hoping to find that she had written about me in her many emails – written or at the very least mentioned me.
So I searched. It was sad without the feeling of sadness associated with it. I read emails from people I never thought I’d hear from again. Her mother. Her aunt. Her sister. And of course her current boyfriend whom I had never met or communicated with in any way whatsoever; the one who had come after me. I read with the fascination of someone watching a three-way collision in the center of a crowded intersection. I couldn’t stop though I skimmed through most messages. Searching for my name. I didn’t find it.
When I’d gone through enough messages to make me sick, I signed out of her account and went outside. I couldn’t feel the outside. I could only feel her words, their words, and the unsettling realization that I would do it again even though minutes earlier I swore I wouldn’t.
The previous year we were together but living in separate cities. We had spent most of our multi-month relationship apart – she in the north and I in the south. She was up there when she gave me the password to her email account. As she was in a place that lacked internet access and would be there for many more weeks, it was her boyfriend’s duty to check her account frequently and report back to her often. What else could I do but oblige? I was nearing twenty-one; she was still eighteen, and I thought I loved her.
I checked her account and reported back as often as I could. Even her phone access was limited. In another month we would no longer be boyfriend and girlfriend – she dumping me and I somewhat secretly hoping she would – and in a half a year we would no longer be communicating at all, but during that month of legitimately checking her email I found almost nothing of interest to her or to me. Few people wrote her. She received a lot of spam. It was like accessing an account belonging to someone who was dead.
A year later and all that had changed. Her inbox was packed. She was going places, doing things. About to set off for foreign lands on a study abroad program. Messages pertaining to that imminent trip. Messages from her boyfriend who’d just graduated from their college requesting to go with her. Desperate messages, sad messages really, from one of her guy friends whom I’d halfway known asking where she was, why she hadn’t responded to his emails.
I would not be that guy. I would not be so pathetic as to write her. It was over. All I was doing was checking up on her.
I checked up on her three more times – once in mid-October, the next on Christmas Eve, and the last in early February – and each time I felt terrible doing it. And yet I did it, I did it because I had to know if she at all thought of me even remotely, a word. I had to know what I was not supposed to know. I learned the last name of her boyfriend, the one who had come after me. I learned that they were indeed traveling together through foreign lands. I learned that she was starting to like him more (this in an email to her sister). I learned names of people I had met and would never meet, read messages sent from cities I could only daydream of traveling to. At last, in early February, after reading an email in which she said she would soon be returning with her boyfriend to America, I swore off checking her email account forever.
In June of that year I graduated from college in the south and went on a two-month-long backpacking trip through Europe. She and I had at one time talked of doing this together. Instead I was going with a good friend but with her in mind. During my travels I thought of including her in my list of people to whom I sent my travel updates. It would’ve been so easy, just type in her email address and send off the message. Perhaps she would write back, perhaps not. But either way at least she would know I was traveling too. At least she would know.
I never did write her. I forgot her – or so I thought. Upon returning to America I promptly went to grad school, finished the program there, then moved to L.A. and started a high-paying but soul-squeezing job that contained me to a cubicle and allowed me free reign of…the internet. At first I concentrated solely on work-related assignments. After a few months the wandering really started. I learned so many things. I learned the history of the greatest albums of all time. I learned the circumstances surrounding the deaths of all the band members who ever died untimely and tragically. I learned that on April 1, 1984, the recording artist Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father after a dispute in their Los Angeles home. And eventually, after a year of working at the company, I learned that my ex-girlfriend, the one who had given me the password to her email account, was living in the Midwest.
This was quite a find. When I read that she was getting her doctorate at a college out there I just about laughed. The coincidence! I had lived in the Midwest for the two years of my graduate program. And now here she was, living mere hours from where I had once lived.
I felt something of a connection.
It wasn’t until a few months later, after I’d quit my job to work for no pay in Hollywood, that I decided to do something with the knowledge of her whereabouts. Through a simple search one morning I acquired her mailing address and phone number. Calling I considered but finally decided against. What if I called only to have her current boyfriend (I was sure the guy who had followed right after me was long gone) pick up the phone? How embarrassing would that be? But the mailing address—that I could use. I made her a mix-CD, gave it a title having to do with our Midwest connection, a connection I was sure only we shared, and sent it off. A week later I received a response.
I remember standing in the kitchen of my apartment shaking and gulping air. Trying to think. It was my parents’ wedding anniversary but the note I held was from her. Addressed to “Anonymous CD Sender” (I had of course neglected to put my name anywhere on the envelope, leaving only my address for return). Finally she’d written me – but not with the news I had expected. I had expected her to be if not single, then certainly dating casually some guy in her Ph.D. program. But she was neither of these.
She was married.
I read the letter three times before I knew I could not go back to it. Married. The letter said she’d been this way for nine months now; this meant she would’ve been twenty-three when she got hitched. I never would have expected this. I always thought of her as someone who would get married later in life, certainly not until she was in her late twenties and finished with her doctorate. But married: my ideal of her – the ideal of her as a tough independent single woman – shattered that day.
I could not fathom my disappointment then. She wanted the anonymous CD sender to send her a letter (if you want to be friends). She had an idea of who it was – and was it me? Was it? Could I go into her mind again and find out? Did she still use that account from long ago? Did she ever change her password?
I did no such thing. Still I could not write her, call her, email her even though I had handy all three means of communication. I was living in the age of mass communication and I could not communicate.
There was one last thing for me to do. I had to find out if it was him. If I had not checked her email account after the break up, I would not have learned his last name and so wouldn’t have had the power to discover that yes, he indeed was her husband. They had stayed together for six years. She had stuck with the same guy for six years, something I never thought was possible for the girlfriend I knew, the eighteen-year-old who dropped guy after guy back then. And now here she was, married, stable with a clear future and a devoted lover. And I had spent those six years with girlfriends, true, but always secretly hoping she would return to me, that she would fulfill those words spoken to me on the night we broke up: I can see us together years from now.
The last blow came over a year and a half later, when I searched her husband’s name just to see if he’d published his first novel. Turned out he had, earlier that year. She had liked me because I was a writer, and now she was married to the guy who had published his book first, even dedicated it to her.
The day I found out I went to the bookstore. I found the book. I left with a mixture of feelings. One was resolve. Another was envy. Still another was liberation. If liberation can be considered a feeling then I felt it that day vowing never again, never again will I hold myself back.
In an earlier time of course none of this would have happened. The break up, sure, that had to happen, we truly were not compatible, but in an earlier time I would not have found out his last name; I would not have found out where they lived; I would not have held on for as long as I did.
But this is not an earlier time. This is now, the age in which we live, the age of easy communication, instantly accessed knowledge, an age of the immortal on the screen, and it’s about time I accept it.
David Ewald’s work has appeared in BULL: Men’s Fiction, Eclectica, The Chimaera, The Bend, Denver Syntax, Spectrum, and elsewhere. His full-length play, Mormania, was part of Paragon Theatre’s The Trench, and an experimental novelette, Markson’s Pier, is forthcoming from Essays & Fictions. He currently serves as Nonfiction Editor for Eclectica Magazine and lives in California.
© 2012, David Ewald