Falling in Love Over Email: Anatomy of a Digital Courtship
Peter Bognanni on Migrating from the Laptop to Real Life
It was a Gateway Solo laptop and it weighed approximately 75 pounds. The screen looked like a glorified calculator’s. It had a built-in CD-ROM, a Cheeto-stained track pad, and a sticker on it that said, “I’d rather be reading Bukowski.” (I know; I was that guy). And it was with this device that I was going to woo a brilliant and beautiful woman who had just gone to Spain only weeks after we started dating.
The year was 2002. She was a junior in college, and I had just graduated and gotten my first real job reading the slush pile at a children’s publisher, where I spent much of each day perusing books with titles like “Jingles, the Elf with Shingles,” and “Holy Hell: God’s Role in 9/11.” I’d met her in a creative writing class earlier in college, where I liked her beguiling smile and a story she wrote about a man with the most elegant fingernails in the world. She liked my shoes and my story about a guy who vomits in a cow suit.
Based on this deep connection, we worked up the nerve to date, fueled in part by a late night dance that spilled into her tiny dorm room. I don’t remember much except knowing I wanted to kiss her and then somehow it actually happening. I left at two in the morning that night and stumbled home half-dressed. She told me later that she had resolved to keep things casual for maybe the first time ever. I thought that’s what I was doing too.
Then she moved to another country.
There were no promises of fidelity. I didn’t have a letter jacket or a pin to give her and she didn’t give me her earring like Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club. What I did have was a large, slow computer and a rarely used email account to make sure she didn’t entirely forget I existed.
Before she left, I wasn’t much of an emailer. Like many people my age (old people), I got my first address in college, and I mostly used it to send profane messages to my friends and forward chain emails about how Bill Gates was giving away FREE MONEY if you would JUST FORWARD THIS MESSAGE RIGHT NOW! But soon enough, I realized that my account was all I really had to try to keep this new connection alive.
Phone calls were too expensive. Letters involved international postage (and leaving my house). Texting did not yet exist. And the inventers of Snapchat had yet to go through puberty. It was email or nothing.
There was just one problem: it was probably going to take some wooing.
And up until this point in my life, I had never really been called upon to woo. Most of my prior relationships had come about through plastic cups of lukewarm beer and saying self-deprecating things in a very loud voice over the same Sublime song that played at every college party in the late 90s. Now, suddenly, I was in a position to woo. The word itself sounded like something that happened after a bad night of drinking—I shouldn’t have had that fifth beer. I totally wooed when I got home. But if I wanted to keep in contact, I had to give it a try.
I was an aspiring writer, so in my mind, the messages I would compose during this time would be like the emails Sartre would have sent de Beauvoir, if Sartre used emoticons. When I got started, however, they came out a bit more like puzzling Haikus with too many syllables.
“At work, eating instant oatmeal out of a coffee mug with a Spork. I got a manuscript today called Humpy, the Orphan Camel.”
The form, it seemed, didn’t come naturally to me. And I struggled to define it. Emails weren’t really a conversation, but they weren’t letters either. And how earnest were you supposed to be inside the confines of those little Reply boxes? I didn’t want to come on too strong.
Our first real date had been in a coffee shop, where she told me, with no hint of irony, that she was never going to get married. When she thought about her life after college, she imagined herself alone in New Mexico. Maybe with a dog. “Oh,” I probably said, “Cool.” Then we played pinball. So, I was a little weary of stepping over some invisible line of intimacy. Looking back, it was mostly in the greetings and sign-offs that I first tried some secret ninja flirting.
“Yours, Peter,” said the first one.
Which sounds innocent enough until you realize it basically means I was her possession. Not exactly a low-key statement if taken literally. Here are some charming anecdotes about my day at work, and by the way: I BELONG TO YOU!!!!
Then I tried some Spanish, since, you know, she was in Spain and stuff.
“Adios, Chica Bonita.”
Hmmm. This would have been a bit more sly if she wasn’t proficient in Spanish. But that’s why she was in Spain.
After that, perhaps fearing I had gone too far, I regressed to
The gold standard of boring, sexless sign-offs. The Paul Ryan of goodbyes.
But then I tried a Hail Mary, “Stay Gorgeous!” just five emails later. On the one hand, I can easily imagine a 15-year-old girl writing this in another 15-year-old girl’s yearbook, but still, I was gradually upping the ante.
Our messages were safe at first, little charming roundups of our days. She wrote about life in Granada, “This is a city where you can buy two bottles of wine for three euros, and sit outside drinking in the street.” I wrote about my new world of cubicles and cartoon characters, “I have paper cuts on my fingers from opening so many envelopes. I need some ointment. I wonder if I have any ointment?”
Sure, there was a kindness and affection to the updates—we were telling the other how the world was coming at us, however mundane—but it was all at a careful distance. And I was starting to feel a strain in my casual jokiness. Though I was meeting other people, and trying to sew some wild(ish) oats, it was the time sitting in my office in a warehouse downtown that I most looked forward to. It was the mornings when I knew I would find another one of her messages in my inbox that filled me with that lightheaded sense of anticipation.
So on her birthday, I wrote her my longest email yet, a veritable manifesto. It included a rhyming poem with the line “’You are cut off, Senora’ the camarero screams, / so Junita explodes his head with magical laser beams,” but then toward the bottom, I decided to lay it on the line, and included a list of things I liked about her. That she was a good letter writer, an incredible conversationalist, and that I missed sleeping next to her, which always felt right, in the limited times it happened.
I waited by my humming Gateway for the inevitable response that would say, “I am filing a restraining order against you. It will be the first restraining order ever filed over email from another country.” Instead, the message I got was this:
“Peter… hello, peter. You can’t say such nice things to me via email, it makes me want to come over and see you just so I could kiss you for ten minutes and make it back in time for lunch with my host family.”
After that, things began to change. Even the titles of our emails.
What began as a kind of random email title generator with entries like “Freud, etc. To Iowa and Beyond, and Clan of the Cave Bear,” gradually grew a bit more to the point, “This Sucks, Let’s Be Irrational, Wild Honey Pie, Dear Darling Hello.” Seeing them all lined up, like a found poem, they tell a story of their own.
In the middle of the night.
You distract me… but that’s a good thing (please continue)
The really good place.
Addicted to Writing You.
But as things grew more urgent, I couldn’t help thinking about the inevitable: what it would be like to meet in person again. For most of the time we had been writing, this was an abstract concern. Reality wasn’t relevant; we had created one of our own. A reality built on inside jokes and foolhardy declarations. But this was uncharted territory, and I wasn’t sure how it would mesh with our actual selves.
We were falling in love with words on a screen. Words we had carefully chosen to be likable and romantic. What would happen when we had to be people again, people full of awkward silences and messy, unedited feelings? As her trip drew to a close, an awareness of this seemed to surface with more frequency.
“Email is the strangest thing ever, Peter. Do you realize that we’ve been typing these silly anecdotal messages to each other longer than the time we knew each other and lived in the same city?”
“I don’t know what it’s going to be like to see you again.”
I wish I could remember the exact details of her first day back. That initial shy hello. The things we said on the car ride home while she watched the Minnesota scenery unfold. Only a few images come back. A lake with friends. She forgot her swimsuit and had to borrow one. Lying on my bed, not knowing what was going to come next. I can see it only in flashes.
But I have the emails we sent when I was back at work and she was home with her family in Duluth. First mine:
“The first day after you left, I looked over when I woke up to see if maybe you were still there, snuck back in during the night or something. No dice. So, now I am writing to you again as some sort of substitute for seeing your smiling face (Insert melodramatic sigh). I wanted to tell you again how nice it was to have you here. By the end, you actually seemed real again. And then you left… (second sigh).”
And the beginning of hers:
“I miss writing emails to you. So I’m glad you wrote to me, because I am happy to write back. I miss you! The foghorn has been going off all day. I can hear it from my house. It is humid and raining outside. Are Minneapolis skies blue?”
I can’t remember if I felt relief that we were writing again, back in the world we’d inhabited for months. We were still an online couple, but only 200 miles apart. And in the next week, we seemed to fall back into our familiar pattern. But something was missing. It’s all falling apart, I thought at first. The spark is gone. Eventually, I realized that it was the opposite. Now that I knew what it was like to see her in person, sentences would no longer do.
It was time to log off.
Fifteen years later, we don’t email much anymore. I’ve replaced my Gateway with a sleek machine I don’t fully understand. Sure, there are daily texts and the occasional post-haircut selfie, but we have a child, and sometimes wooing the other is being the one to remember the portable toilet seat before an outing. The language of love is always changing.
Still, there are times when she’s taking a break at work, and I’m at home working on a book, when I get the itch again. We start texting about random things
“Want to see something that will haunt your dreams?”
[Photo of Giant Demonic Clown Cake]
“The Double chin gives me chills”
“And he’s edible!”
For a moment, we can set aside all our other selves and try to close a new distance, the kind of distance that marriage and parenthood can sometimes bring. For a moment, we’re just words on a screen again. We try to make them the right ones.
Peter Bognanni’s new novel, Things I’m Seeing Without You, is available now from Dial Press.